Identifying and Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness

By Deborah Serani, Psy.D., author of Sometimes When I’m Sad

Identifying and Reducing the Stigma of Mental IllnessOne out of five children will experience a mental illness. And while we know that mental health disorders are largely neurobiological in origin, notions remain that laziness, not trying hard enough, being weak, or having a flawed character are the reasons children struggle with disorders like depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD.

Children and adults who don’t understand the science behind mental health disorders often use words like psycho or weirdo, or they may call others crazy and poke fun at them or avoid them. Media, including television shows, news programs, and even children’s cartoons, portray characters as maniacs, lunatics, or sickos. These kinds of portrayals create an environment of shame for children who struggle with mental illnesses and perpetuate the phenomenon of social blaming known as stigma.

History of Stigma

The word stigma is derived from the Latin term meaning mark. A person with mental illness was literally branded with a mark in a visible spot on their body, labeling them as undesirable. Though such markings have stopped over the centuries, stigma around mental illness remains somewhat the same—socially labeling a person with mental illness as unsatisfactory. At present, stigma can be defined as “negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.”

When it comes to mental illness, stigma includes not only the use of devaluing terms, but also myths such as that a child who has a mental illness is likely to be violent or dangerous. Or that mental illnesses can be contagious. Or that a full moon makes people less stable. Or that if you ignore it, a mental health disorder will go away on its own. Other myths suggest that bad parenting causes mental health disorders or that children who are depressed or anxious are just being dramatic to get attention.

Adults who express stigma about mental illness let stigma set the stage for how they interact with others—and more importantly, how they tend to their own mental health and the mental health of their children. This is why addressing stigma to bust the myths and bring science to the public is so very vital. Stigma brings shame and stress, especially in certain cultures, and reduces the likelihood that a child will be diagnosed and receive treatment for a mental health disorder. In fact, studies show that stigma is the greatest reason children and families avoid mental health care. Mental health disorders are treatable illnesses, with over 80 percent of those who get treatment finding success in reducing symptoms. But according to the CDC, only 20 percent of children who have a diagnosable mental illness receive treatment.

Tips to Reduce Stigma

Here are some tips to help reduce mental illness stigma.

Educate Yourself

Learn about how science is connected to mental health disorders. Once you do, you’ll see that anxiety, mood, or trauma disorders, for example, occur due to a combination of neurobiology and environment.

Educate Others

Once you understand mental illnesses, don’t be afraid to reach and teach others. People are often afraid of what they don’t understand, so giving others information about the origins of mental illness can create a new perspective.

Be Mindful of Language

Remind others about how words can hurt. Watch how you speak about mental illness and self-correct if you make a mistake. Consider highlighting how a news story, cartoon, or movie gets it wrong—and point out when the media gets it right!

Convey That Good Health Includes Mental Health

Make sure the message in your home is that good health involves physical and mental health. Teach others that well-being includes a balance of both.

Discuss High-Profile People

There are many people who’ve dealt with a mental health disorder who went on to contribute much to the worlds of art, culture, education, finance, history, literature, music, sports, and more. Consider the lives of President Abraham Lincoln (depression), writer J. K. Rowling (depression), actor Harrison Ford (social anxiety disorder), choreographer Alvin Ailey (bipolar disorder), entrepreneur Richard Branson (dyslexia, ADHD), singer Mariah Carey (bipolar disorder), rock star Bruce Springsteen (depression), and Olympians Michael Phelps (depression, anxiety, ADHD) and Lindsey Vonn (depression) when you need to debunk stigma.

Deborah SeraniDeborah Serani, Psy.D., is an award-winning author and psychologist in practice for 30 years. She is also a professor at Adelphi University, and her writing on the subjects of depression and trauma has been published in academic journals. Dr. Serani is a go-to expert for psychological issues. Her interviews can be found in Newsday, Psychology Today, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and affiliate radio programs at CBS and NPR, among others. She is also a TEDx speaker and has worked as a technical advisor for the NBC television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She lives in New York City.

Sometimes When I'm SadDeborah is the author of Sometimes When I’m Sad.

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