The negative impact of prejudice — such as racial or gender bias — which can lead to discrimination, crime and injustice, has deservedly received great media attention in recent years. Yet, stigma with respect to mental illness is far less widely discussed.
Stigma is a mark of shame or discredit. It results in labeling and setting a person apart from others, so they are seen as part of a stereotyped group and not as an individual. Negative attitudes and beliefs about stigmatized groups create prejudice, which can lead to negative consequences and discrimination in the workplace and in one’s social network.
One of the most frequent reasons people with depression do not seek treatment is they do not want others to find out they are suffering from depression.
Stigma-supporting beliefs that people with mental illnesses should simply “get over it” or “pull themselves out of it” are particularly damaging. Since mental illnesses do not result from personal weakness, mental fortitude alone is not a viable cure. Mental illness results from complex physical changes in the brain like many other diseases.
Therefore, mental illnesses require assessment, monitoring and treatment by a skilled provider — just like any other medical illness.
As suicide rates continue to climb and depression remains the single greatest cause of disability in people ages 15-44, the need to address mental illness-related stigma and remove barriers to treatment is pressing.
Spreading awareness and providing education about the neurobiological causes of mental illness may reduce stigma and increase empathy toward people with mental illness. Celebrity spokespersons and advocates for mental health who share their personal experiences can be extremely helpful.
Learning and sharing facts about mental illness, speaking up when misinformation is being spread, avoiding illness-based labels and being supportive of people with mental illness can all help to reduce stigma.
If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of mental illness, you are not alone. Please contact a medical or licensed mental health care professional for further evaluation.
Dr. Felicia Gould is an assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.