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Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness

Jennifer Martin, Social Media Intern


To understand mental health stigma, we should first review some of the terminology that commonly gets used when referring to mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, any mental illness (AMI) can be defined as any mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder ranging from someone not having any impairment up to severe impairment. When a persons’ mental illness is severe enough to interfere with their ability to function, or if it limits their ability to perform daily activities and lowers their quality of life, this is then referred to as a Serious Mental Illness (SMI). Mental illness in adults can lead to the inability to work, maintain personal relationships, and even impair them from taking care of their physical health and hygiene. In Children with mental illness, often times this can lead to changes in how they interact and play with others, learn at school and home, behave, and handle/regulate their emotions appropriately. 

Mental illness is far more common than we would like to see, and it impacts an estimated 51 million US Adults. Children ages 3-17 get diagnosed with mental illness as well. Anxiety, depression, ADHD, and behavioral problems are most commonly diagnosed and have a serious impact in this age group with approximately 6 million diagnosed with ADHD, 4.5 million with a behavioral problem, 4.4 million with anxiety and 2 million with depression. Children can be diagnosed with more than one mental illness, in fact, 75% of children with depression also have anxiety. 

Historically, those with mental illness have not always been portrayed accurately or treated fairly. Early psychiatric hospitals referred to as “insane asylums” or “lunatic asylums” were places that those with mental illness were sent to, and essentially locked away like prisoners where treatments would be provided that were not always ethical or effective in actually helping the patients. The implication that those with mental illness were outcasts from society, and unfit to live among the rest of society, created a stereotype and unfair generalization that still lingers today and perpetuates stigma surrounding mental illness. 

Some of the stigma around those with mental illness is the implication that people who experience symptoms of their illness are either weak or using it as an excuse. Another issue is the inappropriate use of words that are associated with mental illness, such as when people refer to themselves as “being bipolar” in a negative context that does not actually meet the clinical definition of bipolar disorder. Those who hear this type of talk being used so freely is another way that stigma remains an issue still.

People with mental illness may have feelings of shame, embarrassment, or fear of speaking about their emotions. Stigma can make people feel misunderstood, alone and like they have no one to turn to. In addition to lack of knowledge surrounding mental health and lack of access to care, stigma completes the trifecta that impacts a person’s comfort and ability to make the decision to seek mental health services. As a society, it is important that we take the correct steps to end the stigma surrounding mental health so that people no longer feel the shame or embarrassment to seek what could potentially be life saving mental health services. 


We can do our part to support those with mental illness. Below are 5 ways that we can work towards eliminating stigma and promoting positive discussion surrounding mental health.

1. Speak Openly with others about mental health

Start discussions about mental illness and mental health topics. If you are someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness and feel comfortable discussing your experience, sharing information that will help to debunk misinformation is an excellent way to help stop the stigma. Have conversations with 

2. Educate yourself and others

Learning about mental illness, symptoms, and treatments to better understand what those living with mental illness actually experience will give you more insight on mental health. If you hear someone speaking about mental illness inaccurately, step in and kindly correct them. They may not understand mental illness themselves and need the education from someone who does. 

3. Be aware of the language you use

It is all too common to hear people misuse mental illness in normal conversation. Have you ever heard someone refer to the weather being “bi-polar” insinuating that one minute it is sunny and warm and the next it is cold and dreary? This description of weather using “bi-polar” with negative connotation is one of the ways that certain language can contribute to the stigma. Be mindful of the words you use and the context in which you use them. Something may seem innocent to some, but can be damaging to others. 

4. Be honest about mental health treatment

Seeking mental health resources and treatment is nothing to be ashamed of. When we suffer an injury and need to see a physical therapist, we don’t usually take issue with mentioning to our friends and family if we have an appointment to go to so why should there be shame surrounding going to a counseling or therapy appointment? If you are receiving mental health counseling or therapy, there is nothing wrong with disclosing that to those you feel comfortable around and by doing so, this could make others feel more comfortable seeking out their own help and helping to end stigma about seeking mental health resources.

5. Promote equality in mental and physical health treatment

Depression, schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder, and cancer are all medical diagnoses. For the same reason why we would not shame someone for receiving medical treatment for a physical illness, we should also not shame someone for receiving treatment for a mental illness. Mental illnesses are health conditions that require treatment the same as any other medical condition or emergency. The more people acknowledge the equality between mental and physical health, the closer we will be to ending mental health stigma.

For more information about mental health stigma, please visit the resources below

Overcoming the stigma around mental illness. | Michaela Mulenga | TEDxCasey

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