Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness

Three out of four people with a mental illness report that they have experienced stigma, or discrimination that results from misconceptions about their illnesses. Given that 45 per cent of Australians will experience mental illness at some point in their life, it’s quite possible that you or a loved one will deal with mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it.

Stigma can lead to housing and employment discrimination, contributes to isolation from friends and family members, and can stop people from seeking treatment for their illness. Those with mental illnesses are often made to feel ashamed or hopeless, and they are reluctant to reach out for help because they are afraid of how they may be treated. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that only 20 per cent of people with mental illnesses will seek treatment.

Though one might expect stigma to decline as public awareness and education is increased, mental health stigma is actually on the rise. A 2006 Australian study found that nearly 25 per cent of people felt depression was a sign of personal weakness (rather than a real medical issue), and that 1 in 5 would not tell anyone if they had depression. To make matters worse, the media often portrays people with mental illnesses as unpredictable, unreliable, and even dangerous. This feeds into public opinion, and is then internalised by those who are affected by mental illness, leading to what is known as self-stigma. When negative perceptions of mental illness are confirmed by the general community, low self-esteem and self-efficacy become even more profound for those affected.

When Australians who have mental illnesses were asked what single factor would most improve their lives, the most prevalent answer was the reduction of stigma. Luckily, there are steps we can all take to improve public perceptions about mental illness. Most importantly, we should all educate ourselves about myths and facts surrounding mental illness so we can share that knowledge with others. We should always speak up when we hear others displaying false beliefs and negative stereotypes, and we should be careful of our own words as well. Avoid words like “psycho,” “crazy,” and “nutter,” especially in relation to those with mental illnesses. We can make an effort to help others find jobs and housing, and be sure to never discriminate based on mental illness when we are hiring.

If you have a mental illness, talk openly about your experience to dispel the myth that it is shameful and should remain hidden. When talking about your diagnosis, refer to yourself as “a person with bipolar disorder” rather than “a bipolar person.”  Seek treatment and be sure not to isolate yourself - talk to trusted friends or family members so you can stay connected to your community. You might consider calling a help line or joining a support group so you can share your experiences with those who have been through something similar. Whether you’re helping a friend or family member, or dealing with mental illness yourself, please remember to take care of yourself physically through meditation, adequate sleep, exercise, and healthy eating. Remember that mental illness is a medical issue and there is no shame in treating it as such - it’s just another facet of taking care of yourself and leading a healthy life.