Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness

By: Peg Johnson, MA

Erasing the stigma of mental illness. But what is stigma? A stigma is defined by Merriam Webster as “A mark of shame or discredit, a stain, such as she bore the stigma of cowardice.”  Defined like this it makes us cringe. Surely an educated person in the U.S. would not think this way. Not true. In a survey published in June 2009, Vol 40, No. 6,  Sadie F. Dingfelder  found that:

Despite decades of public information campaigns costing tens of millions of dollars, Americans may be as suspicious of people with mental illness as ever. New research by Bernice Pescosolido, PhD, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (Vol. 41, No. 2), finds that 68 percent of Americans do not want someone with a mental illness marrying into their family and 58 percent do not want people with mental illness in their workplaces.

Sadie F. Dingfelder, Monitor Staff
Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness

Imagine what it feels like to have that stigma applied to you when you are already struggling with mental illness. When the people surrounding you believe that you are socially unacceptable, when they see your illness as an unwanted attribute, it only deepens the sense of unworthiness you are already trying to overcome. 

People who stigmatize and /or stereotype others bring about unfair treatment rather than help. This unfair treatment can be very obvious. For example, people make negative comments or laugh. On the other hand, this unfair treatment can be very subtle. For example, people might assume that a moody person is dangerous or violent. Rather than improving, some attitudes have gotten worse over time: For instance, people are twice as likely today than they were in 1950 to believe that mentally ill people tend to be violent. Sadie Dingfelder reports:

Of course, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent—though they are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than members of the general population, according to a study published in 2001 in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (Vol. 24, No. 6). And a new study, published in February in the Archives of General Psychiatry (Vol. 66, No. 2) finds that mental illness alone does not increase the chances that a person will become violent.

Sadie Dingfelder

How can we reduce or (better yet) succeed in erasing the stigma of mental illness? Why should we bother? Compassionate reasons aside, one in four Americans will be affected by a mental health disorder in any given year, and many more will have a family member affected. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), serious mental illness costs the US $193 billion in lost earnings per year. There are ample statistics to underscore the need to remove this extra burden from those already struggling with a difficult diagnosis. Sixty percent of those with a mental illness fail to seek care, many because they fear the stigma.

Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness Worldwide

The stigma of mental illness is a world-wide issue. What can be done? What has been tried? In Israel Ezer Mizion offers a variety of psychological support services and rehabilitative programs for people suffering from psychological disorders, emotional issues and mental illnesses. These services include:

  • A Big Brother/Sister Program that pairs individuals suffering from mental illnesses with trained mentors who provide companionship, offer assistance with basic daily function, and teach the skills necessary for independent living.
  • Rehabilitative employment centers that provide mentally handicapped people with basic vocational training and employment, and ease their integration into free market employment.
  • A psychological referral team that recommends appropriate psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors to people grappling with emotional disturbances, mental health issues or difficult relationships.
  • A network of psychiatrists and psychologists throughout Israel who provide their services at a discount to patients referred by Ezer Mizion.
  • A 24-hour crisis hotline for non-medical emergencies, including mental health crises such as suicide attempts or severe manic episodes.
  • Click here to go to their website:

In Canada the focus has been on the prevalence of mental illness, as well as the symptoms of the disease. JianLi Wang, Phd, found 75 percent of Canadians could diagnose a depressed person described in a story. A follow-up survey revealed the not-so-good other side of the issue. Forty-five percent of the folks surveyed said they were sure depressed people are unpredictable, and 20 percent believed the depressed folks were dangerous. Wang posited, “You can hold the belief that mental illness is a real disease and still be afraid of people with it.”

The message that mental illness is a disease like any other didn’t seem to work, either, according to Bernice Pescosolido, PhD, professor of Social Science at Indiana University. 

A recent campaign in Scotland called “See Me” tried a different strategy around erasing the stigma. It educated reporters and editors about the harmfulness and inaccuracy of the stereotype that people with schizophrenia are prone to violence. While it succeeded in reducing the number of stories linking violence and mental illness, other unexpected results occurred. Coverage of people with mental illness became more negative. They were often shown as being objects of pity (International Journal of Health Promotion (Vol. 10, No. 1). Neil Quinn, PhD, from Glasgow School of Social Work noted that journalists became afraid to report on mental illness.

A lesson of the Scotland campaign, says study co-author Lee Knifton, Head of Scotland, Assistant Director UK, is that anti-stigma campaigns can’t just focus on eradicating negative depictions of people with mental illness. They need to tell positive stories as well, he says. Read more about the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival at

The take-away: “If you focus on the competence of people with mental illness, that tends to lead to greater tolerance,” says Pescosolido.

Canada is now telling the stories of people with mental illness. Here in the U.S. more and more celebrities and people in the public eye are coming forward to discuss their mental illness and show how they have been able to succeed even though they had a mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMH) has issued the following:

Navigating life with a mental health condition can be tough, and the isolation, blame, and secrecy often encouraged by stigma can create huge challenges to reaching out, getting needed support, and living well. Learning how to avoid and address stigma are important for all of us, especially when you realize stigma’s effects:

  • People experiencing mental health conditions often face rejection, bullying and discrimination. This can make their journey to recovery longer and more difficult.
  • Mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability across the United States.
  • Even though most people can be successfully treated, less than half of the adults in the U.S. who need services and treatment get the help they need.
  • The average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death of youth ages 15-24 and the tenth leading cause of death for all Americans.

Click here to go to the NAMI site and sign the pledge to fight mental illness stigma: Let’s work together on erasing the stigma, and unite to relieve those with mental illness from this additional burden.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.