What is Stigma?
Mental health is simply how we think, feel and act. Our minds control how we handle stress, relate to others, and make decisions.1 Like all areas of well-being, our mental health can become unbalanced. An imbalance can be caused by biological factors (ex. genes) or life experiences (ex. trauma).1 This can change how we think, our mood, or even our behavior.
Unfortunately, mental health is a very taboo subject. Society teaches us to grin and bear our struggles rather than empowering us to share them freely or seek much needed help. With stigma, both temporary and long-term shifts in mental health can lead to unfair assumptions that can be viewed as something that holds us back rather than being viewed as a normal part of life.
Stigma is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be, or is, a disadvantage (a negative stereotype).2 When attached to mental health issues, stigma can make the experience worse.
There are seven types of stigmas:
Public Stigma: when the public supports negative stereotypes or prejudices that lead to discrimination.
Ex. Large groups of people believing an oversimplified concept about people experiencing mental health challenges.
Self-Stigma: when a person internalizes public stigma.
Ex. A person with mental illness believing negative thoughts others tell them.
Perceived Stigma: the belief that others have negative thoughts about oneself.
Ex. A person with mental illness assuming others have negative thoughts about them or others with mental illness.
Label Avoidance: when a person does not acknowledge their issue or seek help to avoid being assigned a stigmatized label.
Ex. A person choosing not to seek mental health treatment to avoid being assigned a stigmatized label.
Stigma by Association: when the effects of stigma extend to someone closely linked to the affected.
Ex. The spouse or child of a person with mental illness experiencing stigma because of their relation to the person with mental illness.
Structural Stigma: policies or structures that decrease opportunities.
Ex. State laws that encourage negative stereotypes about people with mental illness, thus restricting their access to services.
Health Practitioner Stigma: when health professionals allow stereotypes and prejudice to negatively affect patient’s care.
Ex. A health professional changing their delivery of care based on a negative belief about mental illness.
How does stigma relate to mental health?
Stigma happens when someone is seen negatively for characteristics like skin color, a disability, or a mental illness. When stigma is attached to a behavior, people can feel shame for simply living their lives authentically.
Although stigma is created from our environment, it can grow within us and become internalized. Once this happens, our mind will trick us into second guessing what feels right. Mental health stigma often makes the problem worse and can create barriers to treatment.
Stigma can show up in a variety of ways. Emotional impacts include feeling shame or hopelessness. Stigmatized people often experience isolation, either by their own doing or at the hand of others. Stigma often creates self-doubt that can make one feel like their mental illness is holding them back. This mindset often encourages the idea that the situation can’t be improved and can cause hesitation to seek treatment.4
Stigma can lead to discrimination. Discrimination may be obvious and direct, such as someone making a negative remark about mental illness or treatment. Or it may be unintentional or subtle, such as someone avoiding a person with mental illness because they are assumed to be unstable, violent, or dangerous due to the mental illness.
Then there are intentional malicious actions that come from stigma like bullying or harassment. People with mental illness are often misunderstood by friends, family, and society, which can redirect energy that could be focused in other areas (i.e., parenting, working, treatment or recovery).4 Many with mental illness face hardships navigating the education system due to a lack of awareness. Mental health stigma has also created structural limitations reducing opportunities for employment and challenges securing housing.
What does stigma in Maternal Mental Health look like?
Mental health issues and stigma can land at an interesting angle during pregnancy and post-partum. Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are common in pregnant women and new moms. Click here to learn more about PMADs and the types of mental health challenges associated with a new addition to the family.4
It should be a group effort to deal with stigma. We can work against stigma from an individual level or from a communal level.
As an individual, don’t hesitate to seek help when needed. Although the fear of stigma can push us away from it, treatment is very important to improve mental illness. Focus on blocking out the ignorance of others and not allowing them to influence your self-perception. Practice positive behaviors that affirm the way you want to be viewed. Mental illness comes in many forms and is more common than it appears. Talking about your experience can be a huge help. Find a trusted friend, family member, therapist, or neighbor who can support you by providing a listening ear. Push yourself to stay connected rather than letting stigma cause isolation. Draw strength from a supportive environment. Seek out local peer groups or others you know who have similar experiences. Mental illness does not define who we are.
As a community, we are all responsible for creating an inclusive space that supports mental health recovery. Although we may not have the same experiences, we can assist in the reduction of mental health stigma. Make an effort to avoid stigmatizing mental illness. Look at the person and not the label. Getting to know people with mental illness can help normalize the experience. Challenge stigma by speaking up when you hear ignorant or negative comments.2 Learn more about the facts and share that knowledge with others.
Language is important for everyone. It’s important to build positive reminders into daily life by using affirmative language. Think “I have schizophrenia” vs “I am a schizophrenic”.4 We should also be careful not to use judgmental language that emphasizes the illness over the person. For example, say “a person with bipolar disorder” instead of “that person is bipolar”.
Take the first step by demonstrating the changes we want to see in the world. First, give grace to yourself and your own challenges. Take active steps to move out of the shadow of stigma. Secondly, give space to those who may be working through mental health issues around you. Lead with kindness and courteousness to be an example for others. Lastly, spread the word. Share what you’ve learned with others and continue to learn more.
Writer: Candace Page
Reviewer: Rae Anne Pinckney