Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

Here's how to help reduce the stigma of mental illness and make life easier for the millions of people who struggle with it.

Ellen was 17 and a straight-A student when she started hearing voices. "I couldn't concentrate anymore, and I was afraid to leave my room." She spent three months in a psychiatric hospital after she tried to kill herself.

Now 20, Ellen has an apartment, goes to church and takes classes at the local college. The voices are gone, thanks to the medications she takes.

"I'm okay now, but it's been really hard," Ellen says. "People I thought were friends act like they're afraid of me now. If they see me on campus, they turn and go the other way. It makes me feel like a freak."

Sadly, Ellen is not alone. Many people with mental illness suffer from stigma - prejudice and discrimination that's often based on fear and lack of knowledge. Stigma can make it hard for people with mental illness to find jobs or safe housing. It can make them feel ashamed and isolated.

In many cases, fear of stigma keeps people from getting the treatment they need to get well. This can take a terrible toll, raising the risk of substance abuse, disability and suicide.

Mental illness: myth versus fact
Here are some common myths that may be used to justify negative feelings about people with mental illness:

  • Myth: Mental illness is fairly rare and doesn't affect average people.
  • Fact: Mental illness is quite common. According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in five Americans suffer from a mental disorder in any given year. Mental illness can strike people of any age, race, religion or income status.
  • Myth: People with mental illnesses are dangerous.
  • Fact: This powerful myth has been fed by the media. In fact, the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not dangerous. They are much more likely to be the victims of violence and crime than the perpetrators.
  • Myth: Mental illness is more like a weakness than a real illness.
  • Fact: Mental illnesses are as real as other diseases like diabetes or cancer. Some mental illnesses are inherited, just as some physical illnesses are. They are not the result of a weak will or a character flaw.
  • Myth: People with mental illnesses can never be normal.
  • Fact: Science has made great strides in the treatment of mental illness in recent decades. With proper treatment, many people with mental illnesses live normal, productive lives.

How you can fight stigma
We can all do our part to reduce stigma and make life easier for the millions of people who struggle with mental illness. Here are some ideas:

1. Educate yourself about mental illness. Having the facts can help you challenge the misinformation that leads to stigma.

2. Be aware of words. Don't reduce people to a diagnosis. Instead of "a schizophrenic," say "a person with schizophrenia." Correct people who use hurtful language to describe people with mental illness, such as "psycho" or "crazy."

3. Challenge media stereotypes. Write letters to any newspapers, TV or radio stations that promote negative portrayals of people with mental illness.

4. Support those with mental health issues. Treat them with respect. Help them find jobs or housing. Encourage them to get or stick with treatment.

5. Share your story. If you or someone in your family has had a mental illness, speak up about it. Your example could help someone else.



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