Mental Health Stigma: Prejudice That Becomes Discrimination
Mental health stigma is a prejudice that turns into discrimination. It’s an ugly, six letter word that can single-handedly dictate how your life will turn out. Stigma can mean the difference between getting that dream job, or remaining unemployed. Between loving a partner, or remaining single. It can also mean the difference between remaining in hiding or coming out of the mental illness closet.
If you have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you may believe that you have to face the rest of your life under a veil of secrecy. I make that assumption because for nearly fifteen years, I felt the exact same way and told hardly anyone that I lived with mental illness. I've learned that even though stigma has the ability to take control of one’s life, it is ultimately what we do with it that matters.
What Is Mental Health Stigma?
Everyone who has dealt first-hand with the stigma around mental illness likely has a working definition in their mind, but the people at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health sum it up quite nicely.
Stigma refers to negative attitudes (prejudice) and negative behavior (discrimination) towards people with substance use and mental health problems.
Mental health stigma knows no bounds and is constantly on the move. Stigma is in the workplace or in the classroom. It can interfere with making friends and can even interfere with keeping friends. But since stigma has to begin with a negative attitude or prejudice, if we can lessen the prejudice, we should in theory be able to lessen the discrimination.
People fear what they don’t understand. And let’s face it, mental health has only recently begun to even be an acceptable topic of conversation. Unfortunately, for many, it is still a topic that sends shivers down spines but it doesn’t have to stay that way. By talking about it, we normalize it. I have a feeling that, eventually, people will understand.
I never told any friends, coworkers or even romantic partners that I had been hospitalized against my will for over four months for drug-induced psychosis. I never told them that I was once again hospitalized for several months for major depression. Why? Because of stigma.
Self-Stigma, Self-Prejudice and Self-Discrimination
But just how much of that mental health stigma was created in my own mind? Because now, I’m open and honest about my history and life couldn’t be better.
It feels great not having to create convoluted stories to mask the several years of my life spent in psychiatric chaos. I no longer have to fill my resume with white lies to cover the times spent in the psychiatric hospital.
Everyone is different and everyone should come out about their own mental health issues at the right time for them and, preferably, with proper support. But for me, the time is now and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
Curry, C. (2012, May 6). Mental Health Stigma: Prejudice That Becomes Discrimination, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2012/05/prejudice-and-discrimination-in-mental-health-stigma
Author: Chris Curry
I have known two cases of bullying from mental health organisations because of a person's mental health issues, and many workers who are consumers are expected to overwork because otherwise they might lose their job. If there isn't even safety in workplaces where staff have training what hope do the rest of us have?
I frequently disclose my illness now because often I just don't give a dam what people think anymore in the most part, but I have friends who won't use support groups or even discuss mental health for fear of being tarnished.
The only thing I fear now is that my children (who are not born yet) may face discrimination due to my disclosure.
The best advice I can share is if you want to be open about your illness as you have every right to be, go to support groups and join the consumer movement that way you make friends with people who won't bail because of mental illness even if other people do. Most of my friends are consumers who are intelligent and empathetic human beings
What I received in turn for that truth, that I trusted them with, has been devestating. I have bipolar disease. I had a wise psychiatrist who recommended I tell no one of my disease, that when I had children, my husband would use that against me to take my children. When we split up due to his infidelity, his mom came after my son. She didn't succeed,but she would have, I feel confident, if I had told them of my illness. And this was a woman I was very close to when she came after my son.
And he had cheated on me! I only told family and a few childhood friend when I was in my fifties, and everyone of them turned their backs on me. I now know I have bipolar 2, which is much less damaging in that I have had very few manic attacks, but with sever depression. You can imagine what those responses did for my depression. My advice is to think very hard about what you share. My family was close, and still are, but now it does not include me. Nothing I say is significant to them because, after all, any insight I have is "not worth paying attention to.
The unfortunate reality is that the stigma is still very real, even within healthcare professions, which in itself is beyond discouraging.
I have been a medical equipment repair technician for 16 years. I had suffered with migraines for years, when in early 2013, I had a migraine that lasted for 3 weeks. I became suicidal, and admitted myself to a psychiatric ward at a hospital affiliated with the one I worked in.
After I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, they began building their case to terminate.
Once diagnosed, the long and arduous process of trial and error to find the right combination of meds and treatment began. For that year, I lived in a fog, at times oversleeping, accidentally taking the wrong meds, being put on meds that altered my abilities so much, that I was scared to try and drive myself to work. Every mistake I made, while doing my best to be a proactive participant in my recovery, was held against me.
I was terminated for absences, when I had fewer absences than their policy states are grounds for termination.
I believe had I been untruthful about my diagnosis, I would still have my job. But, my relationship with God is far more important to me than any job. I know He's allowed these events so that I can help others in similar circumstances in the future.
So, now I'm looking for a job, and deathly afraid potential employers will find out about my diagnosis.
Thanks again for the post.
CHOICE is key. Unfortunately, sometimes mental health episodes come out in the most inopportune times and you are left stranded with minimal or no support to even begin recovery. My saving grace is that the family structure in my culture will rally behind you, though it is often done with very little understanding and has its own share of stigma within it. But at least I did not end up homeless. Very grateful for that.
Reason I am writing is to say that a person's experience is so individual and personal. Whether someone chooses to be open about their illness or disclose is their perogative. I am a deeply private person, and this is the main basis for my decision to not disclose. I don't appreciate being called "dishonest" simply because I choose not to (and I've seen that word bandied about healthyplace, which is annoying). Choice is really the thing that is empowering. When you get to choose, you are mentally and emotionally prepared to defend that choice.
I have defended other people with mental health issues in the past, and will continue to do so if I see someone maligned because of it, but so what if I refuse to put myself out there? Just not comfortable with it, will probably never be comfortable with it, and I'm just not in a position that makes it conducive to a positive outcome.
Thank god the stars aligned in your favor that allowed you to step out of your shell. You sound very dedicated and you do good and important work. From what I've read, you are a voice for people who would simply disappear into the ether that is the penal system. Many studies have demonstrated that the mentally ill simply do not belong in the harsh world of the prison system, but not many people know this.
(Side note: just noticed this link. Glad to see the sentiment is shared after all. http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/bipolargriot/2012/10/10/the-value-of-choice-in-disclosing-or-not-disclosing-your-mental-illness/
Now I feel better.)
@dina. I read somewhere that cyber-bullies suffer from some sort of dysfunction - be it sexual, social, what have you. Driven by some sort of rage for sure, but that's an article for another day.
and this post:
I later encountered some very negative, pidgeon holing types of professionals, who did nothing for me, and whom I suspect, gave out information about me, all to my detriment. Fortunately, I am pretty versitile, and I was able to work around them.
Its not just discrimination that needs to be addressed, but the importance placed on diagnosis, and the stereotyped ideas around about mental illness. Its important to create an environment of acceptance of people as individuals, building on their strengths (abilities and character) rather than emphasizing their illness.
I found it difficult for a long time to get any help with physical ailments, until I moved away, and ultimately found that I needed to be involved in preventative health. Eventually, it was found that there were contributing factors to my 'illness' which could be treated with changes to lifestyle (healthy diet, exercise, stress management, lifestyle planning) I also found it helpful to re-think my attitudes to people, and life in general, and I've read a lot of self development books also. Ultimately, there are some benefits to finding some spiritual fulfilment, and we all have the right to practise our faith (in whatever way we wish).
Health professionals have asked me to write a book about my recovery, which may help other people. I do feel that self-help, lifestyle and a strong faith are the keys to building a new life after mental illness. Good luck to all who are on that road.
I came out of the hospital (a 2 week stay) and immediately began to look for a job and try to get myself back in school. I am now working full time and going to school part time with a 4.0 average. I also just got a promotion and a raise last week. My psychiatrist has lowered my meds and informed me that I may have been misdiagnosed (I am african american) because I have such a low form of the disorder and because I was diagnosed at 30, that my prognosis is pretty good. As I said though, the people that know about my disorder wont let me live it down. They try and treat me like an undesirable or as if they don't know if I'll go crazy again (therefore little I say can be taken seriously) and this is hurtful. I am working hard to remove the Mental Illness stigma from my own mind about myself but it doesn't help when others refuse to see you as you once were. This blog entry was very helpful to me, though my personal philosophy is that my mental health diagnosis (as in any other diagnosis) is my business and no one else's. Thanks for posting though.
Thanks for reading,
After college I quit taking my meds convinced I had been mis-diagnosed and I was going to be "normal" and not "buy in" to the diagnostic labels so I could quit feeling the shame of self-stigma and feel better about who I am. I got a great job as a trauma counselor and volunteer coordinator for a non-profit. I had my own office and had earned the trust in my competence to have complete control of how my program was run. I managed to keep this up for a little more than 3 years. I hid my winter depressions by going in after hours and working nearly all night to make up for my lack of energy and concentration. The hypomanic springs would catch me up. Then I crashed. Years of burning the candle at both ends and not using medications, and basically not having a single person in my life to talk about these things, I had a serious mixed episode and it was obvious to everyone at work there was something seriously wrong with me. I ended up being hospitalized. Then when I shared my diagnosis I pretended that I had been given the diagnosis for the first time. Everyone was great. Or so I thought, when it came right down to it, I was never looked at the same way again. I was micromanaged, lost all authority in my dept, most of my job description was farmed out the other employees. I begged to be some kind of way of "earning" my job back. Some performance and job load milestones of getting back to where I was before. It never happened. Even though I worked with mental health professionals, I was treated like damaged goods. I quit. All this did was teach me that I had to keep my secret. This lead to more frequent episodes, self-isolating, and basically self-loathing. I went back on disability, accepted a monthly income 1/3 of what it was, but mostly I gave up on ever being "normal".
I don't date because I feel no one deserves to get stuck with someone like me. That they will meet me when I am well, have all these ideas of who I am and then I would inevitably have to burst their bubble. Mostly though, I don't want to lie and I don't want to feel so horrified while "outing myself" and face rejection.
I have TONS of insight, I have an educational background in neuropsychobiolgy and trauma counseling for heaven's sake! Yet the stigma hurts me more than my illness and probably keeps me sicker than I need to be (especially at the heart/soul level). I have lost 6 years of my life - more from my nearly full-time self-stigma / shame than from my less than part-time bi polar disorder.
I am in counseling myself and working very hard on trying to overcome my shame and accept my illness but more importantly I am trying to rejoin the human race and better my situation by trusting in people - one at a time. Stigma is an awful thing, it is a debilitating societal disease in itself. When that stigma gets turned inward, it may as well become a sword that metaphorically (or in some instances literally) severs your life.
Thanks for speaking out about this. It is good to know that stigma is possible to overcome.
I recently encountered a huge stigma issue at a local pychology counseling visit. I went there for marriage counseling and the psychologist decided within 10 minutes of the conversation, as soon as he found out I had a mental illness, that he would not help us until I had gone to see my psychiatrist. I have been well for two years!
Hold your head up high and don't be ashamed of who you are. And if that day does come when you are no longer doing well, use your resources and get back into the game. There is nothing to be ashamed of. I hope you keep reading my column in the coming weeks and it's a pleasure to 'meet' you.