Don’t Make It Worse: Stigma & Mental Illness

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Disha Arora

07 October 2021

5 Mins

At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction. -Michelle Obama

What Is All The Buzz around Mental Health?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the definition of mental health is “a state of wellbeing in which individuals realize their abilities, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully and make a contribution to their communities.”

Sound mental health isn’t just the absence of mental health problems. Being mentally or emotionally healthy is much more than just being free of depression, anxiety, or any other psychological issues. Rather than the absence of mental illness, mental health refers to the presence of positive characteristics.

Not having a mental illness doesn't mean that you never go through emotional problems or a rough phase in your life. We all go through disappointments, loss, ups and downs. And while these are normal in the hustle and bustle of life they can still cause anxiety, stress or sadness. But people with strong mental health are better able to bounce back from adversity or trauma just like the ones with a better physical heath easily bounce back from an illness or an injury.

How Stigmatization Prevents Us from Addressing Our Mental Health Needs?

Our inability to address our mental health needs stems from a variety of reasons but one of the foremost reasons is the so-called ‘society’ which iterates that mental and emotional issues are less legitimate than physical issues.

They are seen as a sign of weakness or somehow as being our own fault or sometimes even seen as something that we should know how to ‘snap’ out of it. Some would also just bottle up their feelings than seek help, especially men who are gender-stereotyped for their masculinity.

Several media like print and films describe misconceptions about mental illness and corresponding stigmatizing attitudes. They identify people with mental illness as homicidal maniacs who need to be feared, who have childlike perceptions of the world that should be marvelled, or they are responsible for their illness because they have a weak character.

People with mental illness are challenged doubly, on one end they struggle the symptoms while on the other they are challenged by the stigmas, stereotypes and the prejudices that come up from the misconceptions about mental illness prevalent in the society.

The impact of stigma is not only limited to the Public stigma but also to what is known as self-stigma. Public stigma is the reaction that the general population has to people with mental illness while self-stigma is associated with the prejudice that people with mental illness turn against themselves. Both public and self-stigma could be understood with the help of three components: Stereotype, Prejudice and Discrimination.

People who have knowledge of a set of stereotypes do not mean that they agree with them. On the other hand, people who are prejudice endorse these negative stereotypes and generate negative emotional reactions leading to discrimination, the behavioural reaction.

The Cross-cultural Examination

Studies suggest that a majority of citizens in the west have stigmatized views related to mental illness which is not just restricted to the uninformed population but also the general public who are well-trained professionals having mental health disciplines.

The stigmas and stereotypes related to mental illness seem to be less evident in Asian and African countries which could be possible either due to the dearth of research in these societies or a cultural sphere that does not promote stigma. Notably, the stigma seems almost non-existent in Islamic societies. Cross-cultural examinations of the concepts, experiences, and responses to mental illness are clearly needed.

The Consequences

Understanding the impact of stigma on the people with mental illness could broadly take four forms: withhold help, avoidance, coercive treatment, and segregated institutions. Studies have shown that public withholds help groups with the corresponding stigma. A more extreme form of this behaviour is social avoidance, which is not just self-report but it is also a reality, where the public strives to not interact with people with mental illness.

Employers do not want persons nearby so do not hire them, not want to spend an evening socializing, or have a family member marry a person with mental illness. Research has shown that stigma has a deleterious impact on obtaining good jobs and leasing safe housing. Sometimes, even the use of words like ‘idiot’, ‘pagal’, ‘stupid’ in our daily language may instigate or mentally impact/disturb someone with a mental illness about which one has no idea. Even in a medical setting negative stereotypes can make the providers less likely to focus on the patient than on the disease.

One living in a widely endorsing stigmatized society, will also definitely internalize these ideas because of which self-esteem suffers and as does the confidence in one’s future. This self-stigma and fear of rejection by others may prevent one from pursuing opportunities for themselves.

However, research suggests that instead of being diminished by the stigmas, many people become righteously angry because of the prejudice they have faced which in turn empowers them to change their roles in the mental health system, becoming more active participants in their treatment plans and pushing for improvements in the quality of service. Self-stigma leads to the ‘why-try’ effect wherein they believe that they will be unable to recover and live a normal life again so just ‘why-try’. Some even deny being labelled as ‘mentally ill’ to avoid being discriminated against or hiding their problems and refusing to seek help.

Structural stigma (i.e., stigma that is part of social and institutional policies and practices) presents additional large-scale barriers to mental care by undermining opportunities for people to seek help. A lack of parity between coverage for mental health and other health care, lack of funding for mental health research, and use of mental health history in legal proceedings, such as custody cases, all present structural reasons that people might not seek treatment.

Because of the impact of information, culture, and networks on people’s selections to access care, several public-health and policy initiatives meant to encourage care usage have centred on educating individuals regarding mental health to combat harmful stereotypes associated with illness and treatment. Addressing cultural barriers to care and including supportive networks in treatment plans can also encourage treatment.

The strategies involved in changing stigmas toward people with mental illness could be through approaches of protest, education and contact. The efforts of protest have been effective enough in getting the media to stop reporting the inaccurate representation of people with mental illness and finally withdraw these stigmatized images. Education promotes more positive attitudes that are supported by facts to the public so that they can make more informed decisions about mental illness. The stigma related to mental illness further withdraws from society when the general public meets persons with mental health issues who are able to hold their jobs or live as good neighbours.


Many also believe that seeking mental or emotional help would mean either medication or therapy sessions. But the complete truth is that whatever your issues are there are some ways and means through which you can improve the way you feel or experience for better and greater emotional wellbeing. And you can start today!

Making social connection should be a top priority, NO not on Facebook or Instagram but face-to-face. Humans being social creatures have emotional needs and having strong, meaningful, and positive relations and connections.

Edited by Annanya Chaturvedi

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