When discussing mental health, we talk about overcoming “the stigma” a lot. But what many don’t realize is that “the stigma” isn’t singular; it’s actually broken into a million different pieces. It’s just easier to reference stigma as a unified barrier when talking holistically about mental health.
The stigmas aimed at mental illness are incredibly diverse, but today we’re going to talk briefly about a few of the common ones that we face daily. These biases are inherent; they are rooted in tradition, and they are learned from a young age. They create major barriers to those who struggle with mental illness and likely affect you or someone you know. You may have even stigmatized someone unintentionally using these biases!
So, let’s dig in and identify the specific stigmas that surround...
Talking About Mental Health
We’ll start with the elephant in the room: a lot of people get uncomfortable even talking about mental health in a real way. They don’t understand that people with mental illness can’t just turn it off, or that it’s not just a normal emotional response that you’re being “overdramatic” about. The idea of mental illness is often synonymous for people for something being “wrong” or “dangerous” about a person, and when mental health topics are brought up, they’re frequently swept under the rug, whispered, or silenced entirely.
Ah, yes. What logically follows from difficulty discussing the topic at all? Seeking mental health treatment, of course! After all, it’s hard to need treatment for something that doesn’t really exist, right? Ugh.
Once a person has overcome the stigma surrounding the idea that they HAVE a mental illness, they usually recognize that it’s time to seek help in some kind of capacity beyond just a conversation with friends and family. All too often, someone they know stigmatizes the options of professional counseling/therapy or medication, which makes it harder for them to get the help they really do need.
While addiction itself is classified as a mental health disorder, here’s a staggering statistic: studies have shown that 45% of people with addiction have a co-occurring mental health disorder. On the flip side of that, those diagnosed with a mental health condition are twice as likely to struggle with substance abuse.
When someone is trying to get help, the last thing they need is added stigma; but those who seek help for addiction face roadblocks at every turn. Addiction alone does not define a person. Mental illness does not define a person. But the stigma does prevent people from identifying their struggles and seeking treatment to overcome their disorder.
We all know about the damage of toxic masculinity. Men are heavily stigmatized into concealing their basic emotions; they’re taught not to seek help, that any struggle is a sign of weakness, and is unacceptable. Women also face stigmas for their mental health: they can’t be too dramatic, too rude, too much. Traditionally, they’re expected to plaster on a smile and constantly be caregivers to others while putting their own needs aside. Gender bias constantly stigmatizes mental health and prevents people from seeking diagnosis and treatment.
Everyone has heard it at least once (and if you haven’t heard someone say it, you may be the one who did): “you’re too young to feel that way.” The dismissal of mental health warning signs because of age plagues our school systems and society as a whole; for many, the first symptoms of mental illness start as a child or young adult. When these signs are dismissed by those in a position to help and make a difference, this can start a pattern of self-doubt for the person with the disorder, as well as prevent them from seeking help again in the future.
There are many, many stigmas that surround mental illness based on occupation. For example, we expect customer service employees to ALWAYS smile and be upbeat. We expect medical professionals to be able to work grueling schedules in constant high-stress scenarios and not burn out. Corporate jobs often will expect you to essentially sell your soul to the company; the only thing that matters is the bottom line, not your health. Salaried employees are expected to work nights and weekends, and low-level customer service employees (particularly in foodservice and retail) are expected to jump when their employer says jump and be on-call for work...or they’ll find someone who will be.
All of these have a heavy impact on a person’s mental health and also prevent them from seeking help or self-care in times of crisis.
This Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg
We could talk all day about the specific stigmas people face when trying to get help for their mental health, and it still wouldn’t be enough. So next time someone asks you what the stigma is, or says something about how it doesn’t exist, or places one of these stigmas on you, send them to this page. Maybe it will help them see the err of their ways!