Mental Health Stigma - The History and How to Help

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The Realities of Mental Health Stigma: Where It Comes From and What You Can Do About It

Mental health awareness and the fight against stigma have become powerful movements in recent years, and thankfully – at least in the U.S. – people with mental illness are no longer condemned to cruelty in forced institutionalization or considered broken. However, we have a long way to go yet – mental health stigma is still a huge deal in society. Even though most of us agree on the need for treatment, the general public still holds false, even subconscious, beliefs about people with mental illness being incapable, inferior, or dangerous.

The stigma around mental health is wildly misplaced and incredibly dangerous. It’s time to advocate for mental fitness in the same way we advocate for physical fitness. There is so much hope in therapy, treatment, medicine, technology, support, and more for those who are facing anxiety, depression, addiction, or other types of behavioral health conditions. At All Points North Lodge, we stand against stigma. We’re calling on you to do the same. But first, we have to understand it.

What Is Mental Health Stigma?

The Oxford Dictionary defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular quality, circumstance, or person.” When a person faces social stigma or is part of a stigmatized group, they are looked upon as an outsider, dirty, or inferior.

Take homeless people, for example; they are often unfairly stigmatized as being unclean, sick, or unstable. In some communities, genders, sexuality, and race are still highly stigmatized.

There are different types of stigma1 that have been defined by researchers over time. Briefly, some of the most common types of stigma are:

  • Public Stigma: Stigma that is endorsed by society, resulting in discrimination against the stigmatized group
  • Self Stigma: An internalized form of stigma, when a person who is part of a stigmatized group starts believing these ideas about themselves
  • Perceived Stigma: The belief that society holds a negative view of a group, whether or not that’s true
  • Label Avoidance: For people with mental illness, this is a very harmful form of stigma; a person with a stigmatized health condition decides not to seek treatment because of the fear of being “labeled” with a diagnosis

Social stigma runs deeper than just a negative societal attitude. In most cases, it causes a great deal of harm to the people being stigmatized – and sometimes, it can even be deadly, as we’ll learn later on.

The History of Mental Health Stigma

When we look throughout history, we can observe many different health conditions that have been stigmatized over time (and many that still are). Leprosy, AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases, physical disability; these are among the health conditions that have always carried a social stigma, and people suffering from them have been discriminated against by society.

But no other type of illness, perhaps, has been stigmatized in society for as many centuries as mental illness has. Since the beginning of time, there have been records of people suffering from symptoms of mental illness – and for almost just as long, the rest of society has been shunning people exhibiting these symptoms because of a mental health stigma ingrained deeply in our systems and minds.

Throughout history, people with mental illness have been treated as outcasts, even dangerous ones. In the Middle Ages2, mental illness was thought of as a punishment from God; a possession of evil that needed to be banished. People suffering from mental health conditions were subjected to various exorcism practices and even, horrifically, were often burned at the cross. Mentally ill people were one of the many targeted populations in Nazi Germany. Until relatively recently, those with more overwhelming mental illness faced cruelty and unjust incarceration while being forcibly institutionalized.

Even now, despite social efforts to raise mental health awareness, people with mental illness face a large social stigma. Mentally ill people have a harder time getting employment and housing, and they need to pay much higher health care premiums. They are often thought of as dangerous, “crazy”, or unpredictable, especially people with schizophrenia – even though research3 shows that schizophrenics are much more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators.

Mental Health Stigma Is Dangerous

So there’s a mental health stigma, you might be thinking, what’s the big deal?

The thing with stigma – or any kind of discrimination – is that it’s not just a personal opinion. When society-as-a-whole views an entire group of people as less worthy, inferior, or something to be feared, there are serious consequences. These consequences are incredibly harmful to the group being discriminated against – and often, they can even be deadly.

The danger of stigma is more true than ever for people suffering from mental illnesses. Research4 has shown that societal stigma against mental illness is one of the most common reasons that people don’t get seek the treatment they need, even when it’s financially accessible to them. The numbers are alarming: it’s estimated that less than 40 percent of people who suffer from mental illness receive the treatment they need.

One study5 showed that almost half of people across 16 different countries felt that seeking mental health treatment would mean fewer or limited job opportunities down the road. Only slightly fewer people, around 40 percent, felt afraid they’d lose friends if they sought help.

Perceived stigma can also make symptoms of mental illness worse; stigma causes a worsening of symptoms, lower self-esteem, and diminished hope. Studies6 have shown that the higher the self-stigma a person has, the less likely they are to recover from their mental illness.

Mental illness is serious – without treatment, it only gets worse. Too often, people with untreated mental illness feel hopeless. As a result, they have turned to suicide, drug overdose, or impulsive behaviors. Suicide alone is the second leading cause of death7 for young people under the age of 35, and among the top ten causes of death for anyone in the U.S.

Mental health conditions are treatable. Where there is treatment, there is hope. Where there is hope, there is healing.

How to Help Fight Against Mental Health Stigma

It’s time for the stigma around mental health to be completely torn down. Lives are at stake. It’s time for all people to get help, for everyone to know that there is hope, and to be applauded for their bravery and vulnerability in asking for help. Recovery is possible.

As you stand to advocate for those with mental health conditions and clear a path to treatment and healing, here are a few ways you can help tear down stigma.

  1. Normalize mental health conversations. The more you talk about your struggles and ask others about theirs, the more common it becomes.
  2. Check on your friends. Sometimes mental health struggles are obvious, but many times they’re not. Ask your friends how they’re doing, and don’t just let them say, “fine.”
  3. See a therapist, and talk about it. Therapy can be a life-changer for those who are facing mental health issues. You don’t need a diagnosis to go. Tell others about your experience to help it seem less threatening.
  4. Advocate for mental health government policies. Call or email your lawmakers to fight for mental health benefits, the enforcement of laws that offer mental health benefits, and non-discrimination policies.
  5. Donate to mental health charities taking up the fight. Take a stand with your money, and fight for the underserved communities.
  6. Stop dismissing. Validate the feelings of others. Sit in it with them. Let it be okay for your friends and family to struggle, and be a safe place for them to land when they need someone to be “not okay” with. Don’t rush through it. Don’t try to fix it immediately. Just be there and love them. Work through it together. Be a steady ground where they can stand.

Help for Mental Health Is Out There

We understand it’s scary to seek treatment, especially for the first time. But mental illness and addiction don’t go away on their own. If you’re battling mental health issues, don’t let social stigma stop you from getting the help you need and deserve.

At All Points North Lodge, all of our staff will treat you with compassion and respect. At our treatment campus or on our proprietary app, you can recover from addiction and mental illness in a non-judgmental and comfortable environment.

Call us today at 855-934-1178 or chat with a member of our team below.




*We cannot understate the importance of working with a doctor and therapist as you recover. This content is intended as medical advice. Interested in therapy or treatment? Call us today or chat below with a team member for more information.

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Anna Mason

Anna Mason

Director of Marketing

Anna is a champion of stories and people person who works as the Director of Marketing for All Points North. Anna's heart beats for the "aha moments" of mental health, and she considers it an honor to create content that fosters these moments for people everywhere.