Tally Moses, M.S.W., Ph.D.
When you think of mental illness stigma, what comes to your mind? “Stigma” often refers to (a) prejudice that individuals diagnosed with a mental disorder are faced with when others view them negatively (as less smart, capable, good, worthy, (and so forth) simply because of a label, and (b) discrimination, when individuals are excluded, rejected, harassed disrespected, and otherwise treated unfairly by those who hold such prejudices. The stigma just described is called public-stigma: being mistreated by the public. There is also the problem of self-stigma, when people diagnosed with a mental disorder apply the negative attitudes they know are ‘out there’ to themselves –such that they feel ashamed, embarrassed, inferior, weak, unimportant (and so forth) because they have a mental health condition.
Both types of stigma are extremely harmful to adults, adolescents and children affected by mental disorders, and their families. Individuals diagnosed with a disorder may be deprived of opportunities in education, employment, housing, and socially, (and so forth); and the negative psychological effects of stigma can lead to further isolation and demoralization. Sometimes the effects of stigma are worse than the effects of the illness itself. Children, and especially adolescents who are concerned about stigma report fears of being rejected by peers, being harassed at school, or treated differently (in a negative way) by teachers and other adults. Family members (especially parents) may be impacted by stigma in somewhat similar ways when they feel blamed, criticized, pitied, isolated or ashamed because of their association.
Does everyone with a mental health condition, or who are related to such a person, suffer from stigma? No. Many youth and adults with a diagnosed mental health condition report mostly support and consideration from others. They may look around and see that they are not alone, and that there are a great many people with mental health disorders who accomplish great things, who live good lives. They learn to accept themselves, to pay attention to the positive, not just the sad and painful. Family members also often find ways to see the person, not the disorder, and to remain optimistic. Why do some people experience more or less public-stigma and self-stigma than others? This is not an easy question. It requires more research.
How can youth diagnosed with a mental disorder and their family members fight against public stigma? Thankfully, many individuals resist and fight against stigma in different ways. Here are just a few:
- Learn more facts about the mental health condition and about effective treatments.
- Identify the positive aspects of self and life, and practice seeing the glass ‘half full’.
- Spend more time with people who are positive, encouraging, or empathic, and less time with those who tend to be more judgmental. Sometimes this involves developing new friendships.
- Reach out to others who have ‘been there’ and can support and coach you if and when needed.
- Connect and maintain a connection with professionals (therapists, doctors, case-managers, etc.) who see you as a full partner in your own recovery, and as full of potential—not simply a collection of symptoms.
- Help someone else who can use your support and encouragement.
- Find or develop new opportunities to speak out against stigma, educate others about the facts, and advocate for change in public views and policies.
Here are some advocacy coalitions working on anti-stigma initiatives in Wisconsin:
Wisconsin Initiative for Stigma Elimination (WISE)
Wisconsin United for Mental Health
Wisconsin Family Ties
National Alliance on Mental Illness (WI)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (Dane County)
Mental Health America