Stigma is negatively judging someone based on a particular attribute, such as having a mental health condition like depression or bipolar disorder. People buy into various stereotypes about these illnesses and let that determine their beliefs. What they rarely realize is that stigma has a tremendously harmful impact on people with these conditions. Here’s a closer look at what stigma looks like, its devastating effects and how to cope with stigma.
What Stigma Looks Like
Stigma can be overt or subtle. An overt example is making negative comments about people with mental illness or discriminating against them. A subtle sign is believing and perpetuating the many destructive myths about mental illness, such as the idea that people with mental illness are violent or dangerous.
Side Effects of Stigma
Stigma around mental health conditions can make people feel ashamed or discourage them from speaking up and getting help.
Plus, while about 22 percent of American adults suffer from a mental health condition such as depression in any given year, almost half don’t seek treatment, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Many other factors contribute to a refusal to seek help, but stigma remains one of the most glaring and important reasons.
Stigma has other serious side effects. It can lead family and friends to reject a loved one, which is devastating, because social support is key to recovery. The person may encounter discrimination or physical harassment, which can add extra stress. Stigma even results in inadequate insurance coverage for mental illness.
How to Cope with Stigma
• Get educated. Whether you’re struggling emotionally or you know someone who is, get educated about mental health conditions. And share what you’ve learned with friends. Knowledge is one of the best ways to combat stigma.
• Accept and seek help. Remember that emotional health conditions are treatable, so there’s no need to struggle in silence. In fact, untreated mental illness can often have harmful consequences. So it’s crucial to seek help from a counselor. Plus, therapy can give you a safe place to discuss your concerns about stigma or how people will view you.
• Realize that you aren’t your condition. Illness doesn’t define us. Just like someone with cancer is still the same person before the diagnosis, so is someone with a mental health condition. Avoid using terms like calling someone (or yourself) anorexic, bulimic, bipolar or schizophrenic. Instead, it is more accurate to say that an individual is suffering from anorexia, bulimia, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
• Get involved. Find out what advocacy groups are on your campus. For instance, Active Minds (www.activeminds.org) has chapters of mental health advocates at schools across the country. Getting involved in a group like Active Minds can help change the culture on your campus to be more understanding and supportive of peers with mental health conditions.