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What We Need to Know About the Mental Health Stigma

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

Part I: Mental Health Stigma

Mental health is becoming more and more widely talked about and discussed among small circles: in our families, on social media, even TV and movies. This is great news! — but the stigma surrounding mental health, mental health illness, and mental health medication are still as persistent and counterfeit as ever.

It is a hoax

With so many topics that used to be “taboo” or only spoken about behind closed doors and in hushed whispers that are now being openly addressed, praised, and even touted, why are mental health and mental illness still such an anathema?

Why is open discussion, understanding, education, and acceptance of mental health issues still so repressed?

Stig·ma /ˈstiɡmə/

1. a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

What are the effects of this stigma?

There are many negative effects of stigma. Outside of the blatant and obvious discrimination that mental health issues are often met with, there are other, more subtle effects that could end up being even more damaging.

- Not admitting you have an issue and need help

- Not seeking help from a loved one or professional

- Unsympathetic family, friends, and co-workers

- Harassment, bullying, or violence

- Cost: Health Insurance, medication, therapy, etc…

- Fear of never being “normal” or living a “normal” life.

- Loss of confidence and self-esteem

- Feelings of guilt or shame

- Feeling alone and isolated

Where Does This Stigma Come From?

One of the oldest medical procedures in the history of mankind is Trepanning, also known as trepanation or “Hole Burring”. This act of boring a hole into the human skull was to expose the dura matter in order to release or “let out” the evil spirits that dwelt within patients that exhibited what we know now as mental illness or mental health issues.

With such a cruel, pitiless, and brutal introduction to mental health “treatment”, it’s no wonder that there is such a self-perceived and often self-inflicted shame and fear of coming forward and talking openly about our mental health, let alone seeking help for it and wearing it with pride.

Then, of course, there’s the social stigma, where ignorance, prejudice, and apathy bark, and scream unapologetically and ceaselessly to “just deal with it”.

Part II: Media and Mental Health

Media plays no small part in this stigma. From classic pieces such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Psycho to more modern offerings such as Girl, Interrupted, or Shutter Island.

I am a big fan of all 4 of these works and am not taking away from their value, but in these examples and myriad others we only get an EXTREME look at the darkest fringes of mental illness and it is depicted so fantastically that the viewers or readers can’t help but shudder and look the other way or develop a morbid curiosity of some falsity.

I am in no way condemning media or blaming it for the stigma associated with mental health, but I do believe the stigma is often fostered through it.

Females with mental illnesses are frequently depicted sexually, while men are ill-natured and/or violent. Both are always “crazy

A Mental Health Issue does not equal CRAZY

OCD, Schizophrenia, and Bipolar Disorder are often marginalized with casual usage that only perpetuates the stigma — “You’re so OCD right now”, or “Are you Bipolar? Calm down!” or “I thought she was going to go schizo on me”.

It’s just as easy (and just as lazy) to attribute a mental health issue to the antagonist of the most recent serial cop drama - just to explain his or her actions as “crazy” - as it is to make him misogynistic and hyper-intelligent or her a femme fatale with trust issues, but what that really does is feed into the painfully uneducated mind that mental illness is associated with violence when actually the exact opposite is true!

One with a mental health issue is more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator.

According to data from the National Comorbidity Survey published by the National Institute of Mental Health when addressing individuals with severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI): “the SPMI population without substance-related disorders may be responsible for no more than about 3 percent of violent crime.

There is a seed of generalization or stereotype that has been planted and cultivated over the years that germinates and grows within the minds of general society: All schizophrenics suffer from hallucinations, everyone with depression is suicidal, all anxiety sufferers are making it up, all “self-harmers” lack the skills to “properly express” their emotions, those suffering from eating disorders are obsessed with body image… etc.

This is not at all true, but a lie becomes the truth when enough people believe it.

This stigma can lead to misunderstanding, shame, fear, pain, and isolation from within and anger, bullying, dismissal, and discrimination from without.

Part III: Mental Health Medication

Early on in my journey, while in the throes of anxious torment, just learning what anxiety is, what it can do, and that I had it, I was sure of one thing: I would NOT take medication.

I would wake up in such agony, tears in my eyes, CONVINCED that I could not breathe and that I was going to die, yet I would not even consider medication.

It was around this time that I was diagnosed with anxiety and prescribed medication for it. I refused it vehemently. I flushed the medication down the toilet and went on miserable and suffering. At that time, I would have sooner died than taken medication for my anxiety (which I was still trying to convince myself that I did not have).

My wife was convinced that I would be rendered impotent and become numb to her and my daughters — that I would become a “zombie” — as if being in tears and pain all day and retreating to my bed the moment I got home from work was a more acceptable or desirable option.

It wasn’t

Why was I so opposed to the medication? Why was my wife?

I’m not a doctor. I have no formal training in this field, yet I was so sure that this medication would do more harm to me than good that I suffered for 3 more months and went through 3 therapists before the last one told me I NEEDED to be on medication — If only for a little while — and I finally asked my doctor to re-prescribe the medication.

I NEEDED to be on medication because my baseline anxiety was so high that I couldn’t function normally. I couldn’t go outside. I could barely go to work. I couldn’t cuddle with my kids or be romantic with my wife (how’s that for irony, eh?).

I have never had a problem taking medication. I used to lift weights. I went hard and I went heavy. One day I went too heavy and DESTROYED my back.

I was on pain medication and muscle relaxers for months!

How many of us are on, or know someone who is on, some type of medication for their physical health?

Thyroid medication, Heart medication, Blood-pressure medication, Cholesterol medication, medication for cramps or for sleep or for concentration, medication for deficiencies, medication for bone strength… I mean c’mon, we all know someone who is on medication for SOMETHING.

If we’ll take medication for our physical needs and healing and wellbeing, why are we so afraid of medication for our mental needs and healing and wellbeing?

Let’s look at a few of the fears that I had to work through -

- I was afraid that I was a disappointment

- I was afraid of the “zombie” effect

- I was afraid that I was taking the easy way out

- I was afraid that I was a failure

What I learned about these fears is that they were all lies. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

Endurer, NOTHING about this struggle is easy. You are a lion! You are fierce. Don’t sell yourself short in believing that you are somehow made weaker by taking medication.

If your family and friends love you, they will support you and help you in any way they can. And if they don’t, then they are not what you need right now.

You are not a failure. You are a victor! Just for getting up this morning, you are a champion.

Some things to remember when dealing with mental health stigma:

- You ARE NOT your disorder or illness: Your mental health issues are a part of you, but they WILL NEVER define you.

- Talk about it: With your parents, with your partner, with a friend. There is power in words and the power is yours. Don’t let the fear of judgment or shame take that power from you. Shout it from the rooftops!

- Don’t disappear: Many people suffering from mental health conditions are tempted to hide away, to slink back into the shadows, and just be forgotten. Taking a break is healthy and necessary, but don’t let a mental health issue rob you of your here and now.

- Don’t buy into the hype: The stigma around Mental health is a LIE. Don’t buy it. Don’t humor it. Don’t encourage it.

- Educate yourself and others: Ignorance is a choice. Choose to educate yourself and others about your mental health issue and break down the walls.

I hope this helped. I hope I was able to open up some dialogue or bring to light some talking points or some glimmer of hope or encouragement!

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