What is Stigma?

Stigma refers to society’s negative attitudes and beliefs towards certain groups of people. When it comes to mental illness, stigma manifests in various ways. Media often portrays individuals with mental illness as dangerous, rebellious, or childlike. This portrayal fuels fear, exclusion, and a sense of needing to control those with mental health conditions. Consequently, people with mental illness may face discrimination in employment, housing, and even legal matters. Unlike physical diseases, mental health conditions are often unfairly attributed to personal responsibility, exacerbating the stigma they face. In This blog post, we will explore mental health stigma and its complexity. So, let’s dive in.

Anne’s Story: A Victim of Mental Health Stigma.

mental healh stigma

Anne, a 25-year-old woman with schizophrenia, experienced the harsh reality of stigma. Despite periods of stability and productivity, Anne’s recent relapse led to discrimination at work and within her own family. Her employer, influenced by misconceptions about mental illness, terminated her employment, fearing she might pose a danger to herself or others. Anne’s supportive family was concerned for her safety and pressured her to move back home. This caused her to lose her social support network at work. In just a month after leaving the hospital, Anne lost her job, home, and friends due to the stigma surrounding her condition. In contrast, individuals with chronic physical illnesses like diabetes, despite facing similar challenges, do not typically encounter the same level of public stigma.

Understanding Public Stigma:

Public stigma refers to the negative attitudes and behaviours exhibited by the general public. These views are viewed by specific groups and are rooted in how society views different cultures, people’s sizes, the Colour of individuals and how they look. While society naturally categorises and labels groups, this process isn’t always straightforward. In Western cultures, many human differences, such as car colour or shoe size, are deemed socially irrelevant. However, factors like skin colour, sexual orientation, or income often shape social perceptions significantly.

Cultural attitudes towards behaviour and illness have evolved, influencing how society perceives and labels individuals. Disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which were unheard of decades ago, may demonstrate this shifting perspective, but more needs to be done!

Labelling individuals often leads to an ‘us versus them’ mentality, perpetuating the notion of fundamental differences between groups. This language reinforces the idea that labelled individuals are inherently different from those without labels. For instance, calling someone a ‘schizophrenic’ rather than a person with schizophrenia emphasises this distinction. In contrast, with physical illnesses, people typically say, ‘a person has cancer,’ language can become a potent tool in perpetuating stigma.

Fear of Stigma: A Barrier to Seeking Health Services.

Mental health sigma

Accessing mental health treatments can significantly improve the symptoms of individuals with mental health illnesses. However, many who could benefit from receiving treatments from mental health care providers often avoid starting their treatments or discontinuing them after only giving them a short trial period. This trend isn’t limited to minor disorders; even individuals with severe conditions like schizophrenia often don’t engage in treatment as expected. Lack of complete adherence to prescribed interventions, such as medication, contributes to high rates of relapse, leading to substantial healthcare costs worldwide. The fear of being labelled and stigmatised as mentally ill—plays a crucial role.

The fear of being labelled causes great concern to consumers. They are aware of societal prejudices against mental illness and wish to avoid being associated with the label of “mentally ill.” Therefore, participation in mental health services often becomes the primary trigger for public stigma.

Research supports the notion that stigma significantly hampers service utilisation. Studies have shown that individuals are less likely to seek help if they anticipate adverse reactions from family members. Even those with higher education levels, like nursing or medical students, may avoid seeking help due to concerns about stigma.

Further research is needed on a definitive link between stigma and mental health service utilisation. The research data strongly suggest that reducing public and self-stigma is essential for increasing treatment participation. Efforts to combat stigma could significantly improve access to mental health services and ultimately enhance better outcomes for individuals living with mental illness.

Combatting Stigma: Strategies and Initiatives

In 1996, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) launched a global initiative aimed at combating the stigma and discrimination associated with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia was selected as the focal point due to its severe symptoms. Its nature and societal associations with mental illness impede the rehabilitation of affected individuals. The WPA initiative seeks to enhance understanding and awareness of schizophrenia and its treatment options, improve public perceptions of individuals with schizophrenia and their families, and use efforts to eradicate discrimination and prejudice. The barriers are breaking down slowly with education, but more strategies and initiatives must be introduced and targeted.  

Education: Challenging Stigma through Knowledge.

Mental health stigma

Education is a powerful tool in combatting stigma by presenting contradictory information to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions. Various formats, such as books, videos, and structured teaching programs, have aimed to spread knowledge across nations. Brief educational courses on mental illness have demonstrated efficacy in reducing stigmatising attitudes across diverse groups, including police officers, industrial workers, government employees, and high school students.

By offering education on mental illness, these programs help individuals develop a better understanding of the complexities of mental health. They provide insights into the experiences of those living with mental illness, challenging preconceived notions and fostering kindness, empathy and understanding. Through education, people learn to recognize and reject stigmatizing beliefs, promoting a more inclusive and supportive society for individuals with mental health conditions.

Education empowers individuals to advocate for change, spreading awareness and challenging community stigma. By equipping people with accurate information, education becomes a powerful tool for promoting acceptance and understanding of mental health issues. As these educational efforts continue to expand and reach more people, they hold the potential to impact societal attitudes significantly positively towards mental illness.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is deeply entrenched in society, perpetuating discrimination and hindering access to essential healthcare services. Anne’s story illustrates the devastating impact of stigma, leading to loss of employment, housing, and social support for individuals like her with schizophrenia. Public stigma, rooted in societal attitudes and beliefs, further exacerbates barriers to seeking mental health treatment, as individuals fear being labelled and stigmatized.

Efforts to combat stigma have been initiated, such as the World Psychiatric Association’s program targeting schizophrenia stigma. Education emerges as a powerful tool in challenging stereotypes and fostering understanding. Individuals gain insight into mental health complexities through various educational formats, promoting kindness, empathy and acceptance.

By equipping people with accurate information, education empowers them to advocate for change, ultimately contributing to a more inclusive and supportive society for individuals with mental health conditions. As education initiatives continue to expand, there is hope for significant positive change in societal attitudes towards mental illness for future generations.

“In a world quick to judge, kindness is the shield that protects against the arrows of stigma.”


If you or any member of your family or friends need help from suffering from a mental illness, please seek mental healthcare providers such as. beyondblue.org.au/about/contact-us

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