General Psychiatry

Stigma & Discrimination

More than half of people with mental illness don't receive help for their disorders. Often, people avoid or delay seeking treatment due to concerns about being treated differently or fears of losing their jobs and livelihood. That's because stigma, prejudice and discrimination against people with mental illness is still very much a problem.

Stigma, prejudice and discrimination against people with mental illness can be subtle or it can be obvious—but no matter the magnitude, it can lead to harm. People with mental illness are marginalized and discriminated against in various ways, but understanding what that looks like and how to address it and eradicate it can help.

The Facts on Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination

Stigma often comes from lack of understanding or fear. Inaccurate or misleading media representations of mental illness contribute to both those factors. A review of studies on stigma shows that while the public may accept the medical or genetic nature of a mental health disorder and the need for treatment, many people still have a negative view of those with mental illness.

Likewise balanced, responsible and accurate reporting can contribute to a more open and welcoming society. Taking action to reduce stigma, then, is important for lots of reasons.

What Is Stigma?

The World Health Organization defines stigma as: A major cause of discrimination and exclusion: it affects people ‘s self-esteem, helps disrupt their family relationships and limits their ability to socialize and obtain housing and jobs.

There are many forms of stigma in society, some are based on negative attitudes or beliefs, others are due to a lack of understanding or misinformation.

Stigma can lead to a lack of support or empathy for people with a mental illness, leaving people embarrassed, misunderstood, and marginalized. Stigma can cause more than hurt feelings. It can result in symptoms being ignored, lead to poor recovery and a lower quality of life due to isolation.


People living with mental illness are often unfairly and inaccurately labelled as ‘scary’, ‘comical’ or ‘incompetent’. If you’re living with a mental illness, stigma is one more stress you don’t need. In fact, some people say that the effects of stigma and prejudice can be as distressing as the symptoms of their illness.

What Harm Does Stigma Do?

Stigma tarnishes the lives of people with a mental illness, causes stress and unhappiness for their family and friends, and deters people from seeking treatment.

Stigma has a profound effect on the lives of those affected in a range of ways.

Stigma Discourages Help-Seeking

Like most health problems, mental illness is easier to treat if diagnosed early. But many people with the early symptoms of mental illness are reluctant to seek help because they don’t understand what these symptoms mean, or associate mental illness with negative and inaccurate stereotypes.


Stigma Promotes Discrimination

Fear and ignorance about mental illness contributes to discrimination, making it harder for people with a mental illness to find work, a place to live, and be 


The Effects On Family And Friends

The distress which may be caused by caring for a person with a mental illness is often unrecognized. As well as being frustrated by the practical problems of caring, it is also hurtful and upsetting to see the person you care for being mocked and vilified.



Some of the most harmful effects of stigma occur when it affects how people view themselves. Self-stigma happens when someone accepts and takes on the prejudiced perception held by others. A damaging effect of self-stigma is a poor self-image. The person believes stereotypes that people with a mental illness are inferior and less deserving of respect. This contributes to social withdrawal, poor self-worth and reduced care for personal wellbeing.

Self-efficacy is also affected. In other words, the person with self-stigma comes to believe that they can never be able to do things for themselves, and will be inevitably reliant on others. 

Belief in recovery and hope for the future is damaged, as the person takes on the stereotype of an inferior, permanently-damaged person. Feelings of poor self-worth can contribute to, or worsen, co-morbid conditions such as depression and anxiety. These feelings may also lead to abuse of alcohol and other drugs. 

Stigma Makes Recovery Harder

Stigma makes recovery from mental illness harder. Mental wellbeing has a lot to do with staying active and engaged, living a contributing life, and feeling accepted by others as part of the community. For a person with a mental illness, stigma can erode their self-confidence and make them shy away from engaging with others, fearing misunderstanding and ridicule


Stigma Causes Isolation

The fear of negative attitudes and community misunderstanding can cause people to withdraw from society. As well as being distressing, social isolation – a low level of interaction with others – and loneliness makes it harder for people to cope with the symptoms of mental illness, or seek help to treat their illness.


The Effects On Society

Stigma against mental illness is one of a number of reasons why people can feel excluded or alienated by society. Like racism and other forms of prejudice, stigma suggests that people with a mental illness are ‘outsiders’ –inferior, incapable, or dangerous, and are not equal members of the community. 

Stigmatizing attitudes make society harsher and less considerate or supportive for people affected by mental illness. The media play a big part in influencing public attitudes, and have a responsibility not to unfairly represent people with a mental illness. We can help them do this by drawing their attention to cases of stigma, and encouraging more accurate and respectful reporting of mental illness.


What Can We Do To Help Reduce The Stigma Of Mental Illness?
  • Talk openly about mental health, such as sharing trusted content on social media.
  • Educate yourself and others – respond to misperceptions or negative comments by sharing facts and experiences.
  • Be conscious of language – remind people that words matter.
  • Encourage equality between physical and mental illness – draw comparisons to how they would treat someone with cancer or diabetes.
  • Show compassion for those with mental illness.
  • Be honest about treatment – normalize mental health treatment, just like other health care treatment.
  • Let the media know when they are using stigmatizing language presenting stories of mental illness in a stigmatizing way.
  • Choose empowerment over shame - "I fight stigma by choosing to live an empowered life. to me, that means owning my life and my story and refusing to allow others to dictate how I view myself or how I feel about myself."