The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) “estimated that more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (57.8 million in 2021).” That number has not waivered in 2023. Yet, NIMH also reported that “estimates suggest that only half of the people with mental illnesses receive treatment.” There are many reasons for this, including financial constraints, insurance insecurities, regional difficulties, and a lack of resources. Also, one primary culprit is mental health stigma.
There have been many strides in recent years to create a better discussion surrounding mental health. This includes the abundance of academic and government sources online to get accurate information, and issues of mental health are being highlighted in schools. There is also the fact that competent mental health care has become available to more people. However, there have also been some inhibitors to positive mental health advocacy as well. This includes misinformation in the social media sphere and the rise in predatory “treatment centers.”
Gaining a better understanding of what mental health stigma is and how to advocate against it destigmatizes mental illness. It also breaks down barriers that may have otherwise kept people from getting the help they need. No one should be restricted from getting the mental health care they need – especially due to the indignity of others.
What Exactly Is Mental Health Stigma?
Regarding mental health stigma, it is pretty much what it sounds like. It is the mischaracterization, misinformation, and demonization of both the mental health industry and individuals struggling with mental illness.
As previously mentioned, these stigmas have certainly diminished and transformed over the last century. For example, it used to be common to cast away individuals who we now know were struggling with alcohol use disorder into a psychiatric institution. Soldiers coming back from war were said to have “shell shock,” which was chalked up to a lack of resilience. Now, we know these were most likely serious cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. It also used to be common to categorize mental illness in women as “hysteria” and label them as “unwell.” Nonetheless, they would often be institutionalized as well.
While those examples seem unbelievable and cruel, there are still forms of mental health stigma going on today. These include social media misinformation, the casual nature by which mental illness is defined, and the continued use of derogatory labeling and language.
Some Examples of Mental Health Stigma
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), these are just a few of the stigmas that still surround mental illness in the 21st century:
- Defining an individual as having a specific mental illness based on unfounded characteristics. For example, referring to an individual who is occasionally melancholic as “clinically depressed,” or an individual that is exceptionally organized as having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
- The use of demeaning and derogatory language and verbal attacks. Some examples of this are terms like “crazy,” “insane,” “mental case,” and “deranged.”
- Diminishing the significance of the symptoms of mental illness. NAMI gives the example of “suicide [as] caused by a single event – such as having a relationship problem or losing a job – not by mental illness.”
- Using the term “normal” and “not normal” when it comes to describing an individual struggling with issues of mental health. Moreover, mental health struggles are normal.
- Lumping all mental illnesses as having the same characteristics. This includes heightening and misrepresenting certain characteristics. For example, someone stigmatizing mental illness might say, “All people with mental illness have violent tendencies.” Of course, we know this statement to be both outrageous and outlandish.
How to Overcome Mental Health Stigma
So how do we overcome mental health stigma? Perhaps the first step is learning how to spot misinformation online and both avoid and disavow it. Look for good reliable sources online. Seeking out government agencies whose websites often end in “.gov” is a good start. There are also many academic and peer-reviewed journals online that can offer quality and trustworthy information.
The next step is being able to differentiate between reputable recovery centers versus those that are solely looking to capitalize on very vulnerable people. They also capitalize on a very large, sometimes unregulated industry. Look for accreditations when researching recovery centers. Some good examples of these are the “Joint Commission Gold Seal of Approval,” and state-specific associations of behavioral health.
The sooner issues of mental health get destigmatized, the sooner individuals with mental illness can get the care they deserve. Revisiting the statistics mentioned earlier; those statistics represent over 25 million individuals not getting any form of mental health care. If even a fraction of that comes from mental health stigma, that is a fraction too much. The Phoenix Recovery Center can help overcome this stigma, and get individuals the help they need. For more information on how to navigate the stigmas that surround mental health, please reach out to The Phoenix Recovery Center at (801) 438-3185.