The Stigma Around Mental Health Problems Must Change

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Even before the pandemic, nearly one in five adults had a mental health disorder or condition which creates dysfunction in their lives and relationships. The pandemic has seen a 30% increase in adults reporting anxiety or depression in January 2021 (compared to 2019).

However, there is still a pervasive stigma attached to disorders like depression, PTSD, and substance abuse.

Those of us in the helping professions have been trying to reduce the stigma of mental health disorders for many years. Stigmatizing mental health problems is a barrier to helping those who need it, as it makes them less likely to seek help.

How Individuals Stigmatize People With Mental Health Disorders

Without having experienced specific mood or behavioral disorder, it is near impossible to really understand the experience of having a mental health disorder. Due to widespread cultural stereotypes, people make judgements on those with mental health issues. Movies about mentally ill people often contain unflattering characterizations and scary exaggerations of symptoms. 

There is a tendency to blame the sufferer for causing their own problem. This is especially so in the case of substance use disorders. Discrimination against mentally disordered people can take the form of fear and shunning, disbelief or skepticism, misguided advice such as ‘just pull yourself together,’ and other unhelpful behaviors. 

Institutional Discrimination Against Mental Health Disorders

Widespread stereotyping and ignorance about the mental health challenges have led to discrimination in employment, housing, and even healthcare services.  An employer may choose another candidate if someone suffering from a mental health disorder answers the disability question truthfully on their job application. If they don’t tell the truth and they then, for instance, need time off or file a claim on company health insurance related to their mental health challenge, they could be seen as dishonest and unreliable.

Self-Stigmatization

Because of widespread negative stereotypes and fear, many people with mental health disorders experience shame and other negative feelings which can exacerbate their diagnosis. Moreover, they can be in denial of their condition or just refuse to seek help out of the fear of being judged. 

Mental Health Disorders Are Not “The Person’s Fault”

Researchers continue to unravel the root causes of mental health disorders, but have established correlations to hereditary factors such as DNA or brain chemistry. Another cause could be environmental stressors before birth such as exposure to toxins or other substances in the womb. 

One can be predisposed to mental health disorders yet not actually develop a disorder until after a life stressor triggers it. For instance, people who are predisposed may develop clinical depression after a job loss or divorce; some but not all combat veterans and victims of violent crime develop post-traumatic stress disorder.  

Mental Health Disorders are Not “A Choice”

Like other illnesses, mental health disorders are not self-inflicted; nobody chooses to suffer from, for instance, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or depression. So why do we, as a society, so often look down upon those with symptoms of a mental health issue? 

Fighting the Stigmatization of Mental Health Disorders

Mental health disorders are treatable with therapy, medication, or both. For most people, having a mental health disorder does not preclude functioning normally and leading a long, healthy life, once they get help for their condition. People with mental health disorders, even serious diagnoses such as paranoid schizophrenia, have made outstanding contributions to society in the areas of art, science, and economics.

The best way to fight fear and ignorance is with truth, understanding, and acceptance. The fact is that everybody has problems. By accepting others, we build a safe environment where we will be accepted as well.

About the Author: Scott H. Silverman has been helping men and women recover from mental health disorders for almost 40 years. He is the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient treatment program in San Diego that specializes in sustainable recovery from addiction.

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