The Impact of Stigma on Mental Illness

Stigma has a terrible impact on mental illness. Stigma is based on stereotypes and assumptions about our differences. Characteristics such as race, gender identity, a disability, mental illness or any other noticeable difference can be directly targeted, and often unintentionally. Stigma can affect all people, but especially people from marginalized groups.

Stigma can lead to discrimination such as physical and mental abuse, including neglect, and can have a negative enough impact to even be life-threatening. Discrimination can either compound mental illness or be a factor that contributes to the development of mental illness in an otherwise healthy person.

Social stigma is a harmful, inaccurate, or unfair judgment about members of society who often have a noticeable or perceived difference. People follow stereotypes which can cause them to incorrectly assume that others with differences will typically act inappropriately, fail in their social contribution, and be unworthy of care and positive regard.

Self stigma is another form of stigma that can be very harmful. Self-stigma is a negative view of oneself where one may unfairly judge one’s own characteristics and behaviour. In many cases, self-stigma can arise from the impact of social stigma and can also fuel social stigma, as the presentation of self-stigma, such as low self-esteem, can confirm stereotypical views.

Groups in society have certain views about how we are expected to act or look, and how people with differences should be treated. Stigma may cause others to blame or reject another person because of concerns or differences that are caused by biological, psychological, social, or environmental factors. Through every-day social-learning, people in society learn and normalize stigma towards others. This happens when those around us and the media we consume share stereotypes that may be inaccurate and cause us to make false assumptions about people.

Discrimination based on stigma in daily life can lead to anything from mild rudeness to bullying, serious verbal abuse and physical assault. Resources can be cut off because of stigma. This unfair treatment cannot be justified, yet sometimes the dynamics and unfair judgments of a social network and society enable it. A person and their behaviour can be seen through the filter of an assumed problem within their differences, rather than identifying the person’s actual character or attributes. For example, a person may be treated as poorly, even bullied or ostracized, just because they talk a certain way or have a certain look about them. When their “different” behaviour, that would otherwise be acceptable or welcomed, is attached to a label or stereotype about their character, they can be treated as dangerous or incompetent just because of the stigma of that label. This can have a huge impact on a person’s day-to-day functioning. Stigma can limit a person’s chance of success in socializing, seeking employment and other opportunities.

The stress from stigma has a negative impact on most people and can worsen or be a factor in developing mental health challenges. Those with a diagnosis of mental illness, or experiencing symptoms, may already deal with the extra stress of stigma because they are a visible and targeted group. People with or without a diagnosis can be more predisposed to mental illness through factors like genetics, biology, history and environment. Stigma, such as bullying, is much more likely to trigger mental health challenges when a person is predisposed to mental illness.

Stigma can make a good person seem ‘bad’. The limited view of society and the public eye can often miss the true nature of peoples’ individual lives. Every day, so many well-meaning people are bullied or discriminated against because of a stigmatizing judgment about them. People in society put up barriers because of their social expectations around stereotypes. This can make many tasks in life instantly harder for people with differences, even getting groceries or going to the beach. At every turn stigma can wear a person down causing major challenges in life.
This can cause a person to feel reduced hope, lower self-esteem, difficulties with social relationships and more difficulties at work and school. Stigma can be thoroughly draining.

Peoples’ stigmatized behaviour can be viewed as unacceptable, even though their contribution to society is fair to excellent. Regardless of their contribution, everyone has the right to dignity and respect. With an understanding and education about the person’s history, condition and relevant social or environmental factors in a situation, this stigma can often be averted, and a person and their behaviour can become accepted.

The combination of social stigma and self-stigma can cause people to believe insults and degrading language that they hear from others. The stress of bullying and unfair practices with stigma can cause serious harm, especially to those most vulnerable. If people in general could learn more about mental illness, stigma, and mental health, and open lines of communication before stigma becomes a problem, then those living with mental health challenges will undoubtedly experience greater acceptance and wellbeing.