Exploring Stigma and Mental Health

Stigma and Mental Health

Exploring Stigma and Mental Health

The issue of stigma as it relates to the topic of mental health and mental illness is an important conversation to continue exploring as information and understandings of mental health evolve.  Consider what the term stigma means to you?  In what contexts have you heard this term used and how does it relate to how you’ve come to understand your own or others’ mental health?  It may be helpful to break the idea of stigma down into three parts: stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. 

For this blog post, you may also use the questions to journal and reflect on your own beliefs, experiences and understanding of mental health.

Stereotypes and Exploring Stigma and Mental Health

Stereotypes are commonly held and oversimplified images or ideas of a particular type of person, object or phenomenon.  Applying this idea to mental health, consider what common misconceptions or widely held beliefs exist about individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. 

What have you read about in books, seen on television or movies or observed in larger group discussions at home, work or school with regard to individuals who have anxiety, depression, trauma, experiences of psychosis, an eating disorder or addiction? 

Common stereotypes that persist might suggest that an individual with a mental illness is potentially “violent”, “incurable or hopeless”, “morally deficient”, “infectious”, “unreliable”, “unpredictable”, “attention-seeking”, “crazy”, “weak”, “incapable”, a product of “poor parenting” and/or “bizarre”.  The goal in mentioning these stereotypes is to highlight that they are misconceptions and myths rather than a lived reality.  

For Self-Reflection:

  1. Without focusing on shame, consider what stereotypes or common misconceptions about mental illness you have held.
  2. What has been the impact of these stereotypes on your own understanding of yourself?  Consider the term self-stigma- do you hold any negative attitudes or internalized shame regarding your own psychological condition past or present?
  3. How have these stereotypes impacted your understanding of other peoples’ feelings, thoughts and behaviors?
  4. How do you think these stereotypes change or persist?


Let’s talk about prejudice as it overlaps with groups of people- people with mental illness as a whole, as well as those with specific mental health conditions and diseases, such as those with an addiction.  Prejudice in this context is best understood as a biased assumption, belief or preconceived opinion about someone based on that person’s membership to a particular group rather than on a particular interaction or lived experience. 

As with stereotypes, prejudiced behaviors, attitudes and discriminatory practices can be linked to one or more aspects of a group of people, including skin color, religious beliefs, mental health condition, cultural or ethnic heritage, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, ability/disability, etc.  Each of these different categories bear historical weight with past social experiences that continue to shape current lived experiences and interactions.  

For Self-Reflection:

  1. In what ways have you been treated differently based on an aspect of your identity?
  2. Have you ever experienced being treated differently based on what people know or understand about your mental health or diagnosis(es)?
  3. Do you have a worry or fear that people will judge or understand you differently if you were to reveal that you are living with symptoms of mental illness?
  4. Are there times where you had assumptions or beliefs about a particular group of people and were able to shift your mindset once you had your own personal interactions and experiences?
  5. Which stereotypes identified above make it difficult for others to be compassionate or understanding of people living with a mental health issue?

Mental Health and Discrimination

Having explored the stereotypes that exist that promote prejudiced beliefs and attitudes, it is important to now explore how these wide held beliefs impact the ways in which we treat others with mental health conditions as well as how we are impacted.  Discrimination is considered to be unfair behavior that is motivated by prejudiced, biased, or misguided beliefs or understandings about a group of people- feelings, thoughts and behaviors. 

In the context of mental health, consider the fears that you hold in disclosing to people that you are struggling on an emotional level, often these are starting points to understanding our own understandings of discrimination.  Do you have fear of being harassed? Victimized? Reprimanded? Shamed? Put at a disadvantage, such as at work? Bullied?

For Self-Reflection:

  1. Have you ever experienced being treated differently based on an aspect of your identity, which might include your mental health?
  2. How has stigma affected how you were treated in the past?  How does stigma currently impact how you are treated currently?  Consider your relationships and experiences at work, school, family, friends, etc.
  3. What fears do you have about being treated differently if you were to reveal that you are currently attending to your mental health or struggling to manage symptoms?

Negative Stigmas

Stigma has been associated with greater risks for worsening outcomes for individuals experiencing serious mental illness.  It is important to remember that you are not alone and resources are available to guide you during times when you are feeling misunderstood, confused, scared and overwhelmed. 

Talking to a mental health provider is often an important step in gaining what you deserve and need- to feel heard and seen.  Please reach out to the Holistic Health Counseling Center of NJ if you or a loved one could benefit from treatment: 908-857-4422.

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