04/08/2014 12:56 BST | Updated 04/10/2014 06:59 BST

Seven Reasons Why the Mental Health Stigma Is a Killer


Photo: Steven Depolo/Flickr

One in four people - so on average, someone in the typical two parent, two children family - will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Yet even though so many people are affected, mental illness carries a devastating stigma, which can harm sufferers in every aspect of their life. In fact, a number of studies have shown that approximately nine out of ten people with a mental illness say that stigma has negatively impacted them in some way or another.

In no particular order, below is a list of seven reasons why the mental health stigma needs to be eliminated. After hashing out each reason, I end by suggesting a few simple steps we can all take to join the fight in eradicating it.

1. Stigma discourages sufferers from seeking help

Mental illnesses are just that - illnesses - and as such, require treatment for the sufferer to be able to recover. However tragically, stigma is a major deterrent to seeking help. Many people are so afraid of being judged, ridiculed or discriminated against that they opt to suffer in silence instead of reaching out for support. As a result, they never get better.

2. Stigma can lead to emotional abuse, ostracism and loss of friends

Almost everyone suffering from a mental illness can tell a story of being put down, teased or bullied because of their illness. Many sufferers have also experienced being ostracized by their friends or family because they're perceived as being a "freak" or a "psycho" or as being irrational, unpredictable or dangerous because of their illness - when in the majority of cases this is far from the truth. Losing friends and becoming estranged from family members is devastating in and of itself, and is particularly detrimental to someone with a mental illness, because social support can significantly aid recovery.

3. Stigma can cause alienation in the work force and can drastically affect one's career

According to Bernice Pescosolido, PhD, a stigma researcher at Indiana University and principal investigator for several major National Institutes of Health-funded stigma studies, "the two areas where Americans are most stigmatizing are marriage into the family and work." In the same way people can experience being alienated in their social life, they can also experience it in the workforce, which can have significant vocational consequences.

4. Stigma can cause those with a mental illness to stigmatize themselves

Many people with a mental illness internalize stigmatized beliefs about them, and thus think of themselves as "freaks," "psychos" or "whack-jobs," which is detrimental to their self-esteem and confidence. Such feelings can also lead the person to isolate themselves from others - due to thinking, for example: "I'm a freak--no-one would want to be friends with me" - and it can also cause them not to seek help - as they may think, for example: "I was born a psycho, so what will 'getting help' accomplish?" And because isolating themselves and not seeking help only serves to intensify their illness, they begin to feel like even more of a "freak," which intensifies their illness even more, which causes them to feel like even more of a "freak," which intensifies their illness even more, which... in this way, it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle, causing the person to spiral further and further downwards.

5. Stigma often leads people to be nervous about reaching out to someone who they think might be suffering

Stigma silences talk about mental illness, hushing it up to such an extent that when someone suspects that their friend or family member might be suffering, they often have no idea how to reach out to offer them help--and thus in many cases, they don't.

6. Stigma can cause people to avoid not only those with a mental illness, but also those associated with them

This is referred to as "courtesy stigma." Many people who are close to someone with a mental illness - such as a spouse, family member or carer - experience being avoided by others, too.

7. Stigma appears to cause mental health services to receive less funding

There is evidence to suggest that mental health services receive less funding than others, due to stigma. This of course makes it more difficult for sufferers to get help.

How can stigma be reduced?

There are multiple ways to skin a cat, but in my opinion, the most effective method of reducing stigma is through education. Stigma is a product of ignorance - it's when people know nothing about mental illness that they tend to judge, ridicule and ostracize people affected by it. On the other hand, when people understand that mental illnesses are just illnesses - treatable just like physical illnesses are - and they understand the symptoms of mental illnesses and the truths and myths surrounding them, they stop being prejudiced.

I think we all have a role to play in the fight to end stigma. We don't all have to be hardcore activists, but we can each contribute by being "collective educators." With that in mind, I encourage you to do the following:

Pick a day of the month, and on that day, spend a few minutes on Google finding an informative article about mental illness.

Then share it, retweet it, pin it, stumble it, email it--just get the article in front of people.

Do the same thing one month later.

Each time, it might enlighten two friends, which over a 12 month period, is 24 people. That's pretty amazing for such a small amount of work. And if it's something enough people do, the stigma will gradually fade.

As with all social crusades, there's strength in numbers.


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