We Still Stigmatize Mental Illness, And It Must End


Many people struggle with mental illness – in any given year, one in five people in Canada suffers from a mental health problem or illness – but it remains highly stigmatized. This seems to happen because of three things: the creation of stereotypes, the internalization of prejudices and acts of discrimination.

A stereotype is a mental shortcut that we use to categorize individuals. When stereotypes are built into the way we think, they are often used to judge or evaluate people.

This is called prejudice. And discrimination stems from these two processes and is usually expressed through behaviors (such as refusing to help someone in need because they appear to be mentally unstable).

Read more: Structural stigma against mental illness is ‘ingrained’ in our health care system, and it affects care

The stigma of mental illness can affect a person’s life in important ways, from job opportunities and finding an apartment to the ability to get insurance and health care. Public stigma is systemic and hinders social equity by accentuating power imbalances. It also affects people by inducing self-stigma – the internalization of associated prejudices.

When applied to mental illness, self-stigma can negatively affect self-esteem, interrupt the pursuit of life goals, and often decrease the likelihood of seeking psychological treatment.

It goes without saying that stigma has a definite impact on people living with their mental illness.

What creates the stigma?

We tend to stigmatize mental illnesses because we are led to have false, unfounded and simplistic assumptions about the people living with them.

A common misconception is that people living with mental illnesses should be feared or avoided due to their potentially dangerous nature. In fact, people living with mental illness are twice as likely to be victims of violence as perpetrators.

Although the association between mental illness and dangerousness is generally wrong, this assumption can lead to social exclusion.

Stigma and misconceptions often stem from a lack of education and misinformation.

The stigma of mental illness can affect a person’s life.
(Kulli Kittus / Unsplash)

The impact of the media on mental illness

This begs the question of where the misconceptions about mental illness come from and why so many people still have them.

Often times, the portrayals of people with mental illness that we have are based on film or television portrayals that frequently exaggerate stereotypes and negative attributes for entertainment purposes.

2016 movie To divide, for example, depicts a character struggling with dissociative identity disorder. Not only does this film defame people with dissociative identity disorder, but the character’s personalities are mocked as well.

Read more: Friday Essay: Disturbing TV Stories for Characters with Mental Illness

Likewise, news articles and reports are known to portray mental illness in stereotypical and dramatic ways to capture the attention of the public. We were all recently reminded of how Britney Spears’ 2007 meltdown was publicized in the extreme – contributing to the public’s stigma about mental illness and fueling debates over her ability to control her own life.

Since the media is a major source of information about mental illnesses, misrepresentation or inaccuracy becomes the pattern we incorporate as we get to know them. In fact, a recent study has shown that negative social media posts and news stories increase stigmatizing attitudes. The study also indicated that the opposite is just as true: the media can reduce stigma by sharing positive stories and articles about mental illness.

It is important to hold the media accountable for how they portray mental illness and to recognize its value as a tool to raise awareness and correct misconceptions.

Split movie trailer.

How to start de-stigmatizing mental illness

There are many ways to start de-stigmatizing mental illness. To protest against misrepresentations (like the #FreeBritney movement) and to improve education on the subject in order to correct implicit prejudices.

Taking the time to interact with people living with mental illness by volunteering in shelters or hospitals, for example, can also help decrease the stigma we have by reducing our fear or discomfort and increasing our empathy. .

We need to reconsider how we refer to mental illness in our everyday language – the use of terms like crazy, psychopathic, crazy or retarded in informal conversations is harmful. These terms not only contribute to stigma, but also trivialize the suffering of people living with mental illnesses.

Mental illness rarely presents itself the same way from person to person, so being critical of sweeping general statements helps resist stereotypes. Helping others challenge their internalized stigma by addressing language, educating ourselves, and sharing the knowledge we gain helps spread social awareness.

Click here to listen to Don’t Call Me Resilient

Even as researchers and future psychologists, we are not immune to the built-in stereotypes that contribute to the stigma of mental illness. Like everyone else, we need to stay aware of our own biases and work to deconstruct the automatic and often unconscious judgments we make about mental illness. Professionals in the field should stay informed about up-to-date evidence-based treatments, while researchers should strive to communicate relevant research results to the public in an accessible manner.

It is important to recognize that change does not happen overnight. This does not mean that it is a lost cause, however.

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