Why should we fight mental health stigma?

Mental health issues affect approximately 25% of people globally at least once in their lives1; yet despite its prevalence, mental illness remains heavily stigmatized.

Many people who experience mental health problems report difficulties finding employment, pursuing education, and maintaining long-term relationships2,3. While these effects are not solely caused by stigma, it negatively impacts people’s ability to seek help and support. 

What is mental health stigma?

Stigma takes two forms: social stigma and self-stigma. Social stigma refers to external prejudice and discriminatory behaviors against those with mental health problems, while self-stigma refers to the internalized meaning and identification of either perceived or actual prejudice. 

Several research groups have found that negative beliefs and attitudes toward mental illness are common, even among clinical professionals4,5,6.

Why does it matter?

The severe effects of mental health stigmatization include lowered quality of life, low social support, social exclusion, low self-esteem, and poor education and employment stability. Contextualizing these effects by the sheer number of people who are likely to experience this stigma—at least one in ten people globally7—highlights the severity of this problem.

According to the WHO, nearly two-thirds of people with mental health issues go without or do not complete treatment, and this is believed to be heavily influenced by social stigma. People who already experience downward social pressure and prejudice, such as people in ethnic minority communities8,9, who are transgender10,11, or with low socioeconomic status12, disproportionately experience the effects of mental health stigma.

Consider the impossible cycle that social stigma creates: if someone experiences serious mental health issues and is denied care or discouraged from seeking help, they are unable to address the very issue that leads them to experience prejudice in the first place.

As with all forms of social prejudice, the impetus should not be on the person but on communities and nations at large to make strides toward changing attitudes, addressing misinformation, educating people about mental illness, and deconstructing barriers to open discussion and support.

What can we do about it?

One factor is critical in fighting stigma: visibility. There are many ways to raise promote mental health visibility, including

  • Facilitating open, honest conversations about mental health with your friends, family, and colleagues
  • Educating yourself and others about mental health and strategies for supporting others in crisis or with specific mental health problems
  • Expressing compassion and understanding for those experiencing mental illness
  • Focusing on empowering yourself and others when faced with mental health challenges

Developing proactive destigmatizing practices is critical for initiating growth and change within ourselves and our communities. 

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