When Mental Health Stigma is Toxic

Brenda Lee and Kiara Lee-Heart

As if dealing with your own mental health is not enough of a load sometimes, the stigma that clouds mental illness and mental health in general can be just as stressful, if not more. Stigma, or negative attitudes toward people or things due to perceived characteristics, can lead to discrimination, according to the Mayo Clinic; this discrimination can come from family members, coworkers, or even from yourself.

Unlike many other types of illnesses, mental health disorders are often met with discriminatory and negative judgements and stigmatizations. Stigmatization of the mentally ill was historically treated with imprisonment, torture or murder. People suffering with depression, autism, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses during the Middle Ages were considered as being punished by God. Those suffering with mental illness were thought to be possessed by the devil, chained to walls, locked away in institutions, etc.

Although those who are mentally ill are no longer tortured or killed, the stigmatization of mental illness remains a societal problem today. Generally, people are unaware of this problem and discrimination of the mentally is still pervasive.

As an educator, it’s disheartening to run across so many people who say they can’t be honest with their family and their friends about what’s going on with them because of backlash (the stigma). It hurts to hear it, especially from the students — young and trying to figure it all out. In communities of color especially, mental health stigma can be a significant barrier for those suffering from mental illness. According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the Black community takes a particularly hard hit in this area — and dire affects can result. Hafeez Baoku writes “Instead of seeking professional help for conditions such as depression and anxiety, many in the community resort to self-medication (drugs, opioids, alcohol, etc.) or isolation in an attempt to solve their problems on their own. This issue of masking pain is especially prevalent amongst black men.”

No one is immune to mental health stigma, but there are things we can all keep in mind to offset the damage that it has the potential to cause.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) list ways to fight mental health stigma:

  • Talk openly about mental health
  • Educate yourself and others
  • Be conscious of language used when talking about mental health
  • Encourage equality between physical and mental illness
  • Show compassion for those with mental illness
  • Choose empowerment over shame
  • Be honest about treatment
  • Let the media know when they’re being stigmatizing
  • Don’t harbor self-stigma

We hope you and your loved ones take these tips into consideration.