The stigma of mental illness

The stigma of mental illness is powerful and painful. It is destructive and resilient even though it is based on misunderstanding and fear.

Stigma means that many people with mental illness hide their illness. They suffer alone, often not telling people close to them what they’re going through. Many don’t even seek treatment. They may feel the stigma is justified. Stigma makes mental health problems much harder to live with.

Be honest. If a work colleague tells you that they have bipolar disorder, what’s your gut reaction? Anxiety? Fear? Empathy and understanding? Do you still want to work with them? No wonder so many people with mental illnesses keep quiet.

What is stigma?

Stigma has been around a long time. The ancient Greeks used to cut or burn signs called stigma into people’s flesh to show that they were a slave, criminal or traitor. They damaged people ritually so others could avoid them.

We don’t mark people physically now but stigma is alive and strong. We stigmatise people who depart from what we think of as normal – and we strongly stigmatise people for their mental health problems.

This means we label people with mental health problems as not like us. They are people we don’t want to be around. We often feel their problems are their own fault somehow. We think they may be dangerous.

And it’s not just people who don’t know much about mental illness who stigmatise it. Even those who know someone with a mental health problem, families, medical professionals: they all tend to stigmatise people with mental health problems.

Common mental health myths

Why do we do this? There are a lot of myths about mental illness out there. Here are the top three:

People believe that people with mental health problems are dangerous, especially those with schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug dependence.

People believe that some mental health problems such as eating disorders and substance abuse are self-inflicted.

People believe that people with mental health problems are hard to talk to.

These myths are rubbish, of course. But we’re going to have to work hard to shift them.

We could start by checking our own responses – how do we behave towards the people around us? Would a friend or colleague dare tell us they have a mental health problem?

We can call out the media and entertainment when they lazily portray yet another person with schizophrenia as violent or homicidal.

And we can join with others to bring people together, making mental health problems just another part of normal life. Because that’s just what they are.

Speaking out about the stigma of mental illness

Time to Change is a campaign to end mental health discrimination. The website has personal blogs about living with the stigma of mental illness, and positive ways to make a difference.

Mark Rice-Oxley wrote in The Guardian about his experience of depression.

Dubstep DJ-producer Benga was diagnosed in 2014 with schizophrenia. Here he talks about how mental illness is taboo in his industry and why he’s speaking up.

The consultant psychiatrists at Private Psychiatry have a wealth of experience and expertise in treating patients who suffer from mental illness. To make an appointment, get in touch.

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