What is Stigma? History, Signs, Types and Its Impact

What is Stigma

Basically, stigma refers to negative attitudes or discrimination towards someone because of their distinguishing characteristics such as mental illness, disability, or health condition. Social stigma can also be influenced by gender, sexuality, race, religion and culture. 

It is still common for mental health to be stigmatized. It is not just mental illness that is stigmatized, but attitudes toward mental illnesses are more prevalent than attitudes towards medical conditions.

Researchers have found that it contributes significantly to poor mental health outcomes.

Stigmatized patients are less likely to seek treatment. In addition, it limits the treatment options available to people with mental illness.

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History of mental illness stigma

The stigma surrounding mental illness is long-standing in societies worldwide. The ideologies around the etiology of mental illness range widely, being regarded as everything from the mark of the devil to a moral punishment.

Due to this, treatment has historically been inhumane and has not always been based on scientific reasoning. Trephining, for example, dates back to the Neolithic age, when a person’s skull was chipped to free evil spirits. Psychiatry and psychology still have a long way to go in treating mental illness, but the treatment of mental illness has advanced greatly since then.

The stigma arises from a fear of the unknown and a lack of understanding. Although we now understand more about how biochemistry and genetics interact in various conditions, it still persists. In addition, the way mental illness is portrayed in the media can compound the stigma.

Researchers hope that it will decrease as they continue to discover the causes of mental illness and discover effective treatments.

Signs of stigma

There are several ways in which stigma is perpetuated, including:

  • Media depictions of villains with mental illnesses are prevalent
  • Mental illness is portrayed in harmful ways
  • It is often assumed that mental health issues can be overcome by just “trying harder” or “snapping out of it”
  • Saying things like “he’s insane” or “she’s crazy” to describe others
  • Creating a stereotype of people with mental illness based on Halloween costumes

Those who have experienced mental illness personally or professionally can attest to the fact that it continues to persist despite advances in psychiatry and psychology. There is still stigma associated with mental disorders, despite increased knowledge.

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Types of stigma

There are two types of stigma associated with mental illness:

  • Social stigma: Negative attitudes others hold about mental illness.
  • Self-perceived stigma: People with mental illness suffer from an internalized stigma.

In 2013, a review of studies on mental illness stigma found that it is still widespread, despite increasing awareness about the nature of different conditions. Many people still have a negative view of those with mental health conditions, despite accepting the medical or genetic nature of the mental illness.

The stigma associated with mental illness causes an internalized sense of shame. This kind of internalized stigma has been linked to poorer treatment outcomes, according to a long-term study.

Impact of stigma

The effects of stigma can be severe and devasting. There is a lack of understanding between stigmatized people, which is invalidating and painful, but there are also more serious risks, such as the feeling of fear, anger, and intolerance toward others. An individual who has been stigmatized may experience:

  • Lack of willingness to seek treatment
  • Treatment is delayed, increasing mortality and morbidity
  • Isolation and rejection by society
  • Poorer psychological wellbeing
  • Bad relationships with family and friends
  • Bullying, harassment or violence
  • An inability to function in society and increased poverty
  • Self-doubt and self-shame increased

People who suffer from mental illness may be less likely to seek treatment due to stigma. Treatment may worsen some conditions over time if left untreated, so refraining from seeking treatment ultimately impacts outcomes.

People who feel stigmatized may also doubt their ability to achieve their goals in life. They may also feel ashamed and even isolated. It can hinder people from finding employment and securing adequate housing. 

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Stigma in the workplace

Mental health stigma remains a major workplace challenge, according to a national survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Mental health issues were considered controversial by around half of workers. Almost one-third of respondents feared retaliation or termination if they sought mental health treatment.

It was estimated that only about one in five workers felt completely comfortable discussing mental health issues. According to the poll, millennials have a higher level of psychological comfort (62% vs. 32%) compared to baby boomers.

Nevertheless, most workers would provide mental health resources to troubled coworkers and about half were at least somewhat comfortable talking about mental health. The fact remains that one out of four workers said they wouldn’t know where to seek mental health treatment, even among those who were willing to assist.

Tips to overcome stigma

Mental illness is stigmatized both socially and by the self, so you can take some steps to reduce it.

  • Mental illness affects many people: Remember that you are not alone in your struggles with mental illness. Approximately one in four Americans struggle with mental disorders.
  • Get support: Make sure you keep in touch with others and stay connected. People and families affected by mental illness can find support and education from organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Treatment can reduce your symptoms and help you live a better life.
  • Speak out: Speak out against the stigma of mental illness and educate others about its realities. The myth that people suffering from schizophrenia tend to be violent is debunked. People with mental illness should never tolerate disparaging remarks from family members or friends.

Challenging stigma associated with mental illness

The key to creating a mental health community is inclusiveness, rejection of discrimination, and support for recovery. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Teaching family, friends, work colleagues and classmates the facts about mental illness.
  • Learning to see people for who they truly are rather than their illness by getting to know people who have experienced mental illness personally.
  • Meeting people with mental illness without judging, labeling, or discriminating. Ensure that all people are treated with dignity and respect.
  • Don’t use language that emphasizes the illness over the person. Instead of saying that person is bipolar, say they have bipolar disorder.
  • Listening to people making inaccurate or stereotypical comments about mental illness and saying something about it.
  • Share your own mental illness experience (if you have). Educating the public about these myths will help dispel them and inspire others to do the same. There is no need to hide mental illness because it is not shameful.