5 Simple Steps to Reduce Stigma About Mental Illness

If you tune into any conversation about mental illness and addiction, it won’t be very long until the term “stigma” comes up. Stigma has various definitions, but they all refer to negative attitudes, beliefs, descriptions, language or behavior. In other words, stigma can translate into disrespectful, unfair, or discriminatory patterns in how we think, feel, talk and behave towards individuals experiencing a mental illness.

If you begin to wonder where stigma comes from, that’s a complicated question. It’s almost like asking where do differences in racial prejudice, political views, religious preference, or sports team allegiances come from? Turns out we are influenced (all too easily) by our family, friends, the media, our culture and environment,  inaccurate stereotypes and a whole host of factors. It’s really difficult to tease all this apart.

Rather than figure out where stigma begins, it’s definitely easier to become more aware of what it is and when it occurs. Then we can do our best to educate others about how to reduce stigma and to work towards ultimately eliminating it.

So, how do we become more aware of stigma? It’s usually easier to take a look at ourselves first before we try to change the rest of the world. To that end, here’s a brief self-assessment quiz on stigma and mental illness. Answer honestly; no one else will need to know your answers.

Mental Illness Stigma Quiz

True or False:
1) There’s no real difference between the terms “mentally ill” and “has a mental illness.”
2) People with mental illness tend to be dangerous and unpredictable.
3) I would worry about my son or daughter marrying someone with a mental illness.
4) I’ve made fun of people with mental illness in the past.
5) I don’t know if I could trust a co-worker who has a mental illness.
6) I’m scared of or stay away from people who appear to have a mental illness.

7) People with a mental illness are lazy or weak and need to just “get over it.”
8) Once someone has a mental illness, they will never recover.
9) I would hesitate to hire someone with a history of mental illness.
10) I’ve used terms like “crazy,” “psycho,” “nut job,” or “retarded” in reference to someone with a mental illness.

The scoring is simple; one point for every true response. Unless your score is zero, you have had thoughts, feelings, or behaviors which can contribute to increased stigma toward people with mental illness. The higher your score, the more likely it is you have had these types of experiences. If you scored a zero, congratulate yourself. Good job!

How to Reduce Stigma

Now that you’ve done a quick self-check and agree there’s room for improvement in how we treat people with mental illness, what’s next? Well, how about becoming an advocate to reduce stigma right there in your own backyard?

Now you may be saying, “Wait a minute, don’t know if I signed on for that.” Let’s put this into perspective. Have you already signed on to make sure your kids and other passengers in your car wear their seat belts? Did you ever sign on to collect your neighbor’s mail while they were on vacation? Have you ever signed on to give a donation to your favorite cause or charity? If so, then you can do this. Yes, you can definitely do this.

But it takes just a little effort. Not too much, just a little. And the rules of the road are quite simple. Here are 5 simple steps you can do as a new stigma fighter:

1) Don’t label people who have a mental illness.

Don’t say, “He’s bipolar” or “she’s schizophrenic.” People are people, not diagnoses. Instead, say “He has a bipolar disorder” or “She has schizophrenia.” And say “has a mental illness” instead of “is mentally ill.” All of this is known as “person-first” language, and it’s far more respectful, for it recognizes that the illness doesn’t define the person.

2) Don’t be afraid of people with mental illness.

Sure, they may sometimes display unusual behaviors when their illness is more severe, but people with mental illness aren’t more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence. Don’t fall prey to other inaccurate stereotypes, such as the disturbed killer or the weird co-worker depicted in the movies.

3) Don’t use disrespectful terms for people with mental illness.

In a research study with British 14-year-olds, the teens came up with over 250 terms to describe mental illness, and the majority were negative. These terms are far too common in our everyday conversations. Also, be careful about using “diagnostic” terms to describe behavior, like “that’s my OCD” or “she’s so borderline.” Given that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental illness, you quite likely may be offending someone and not be aware of it.

4) Don’t be insensitive or blame people with mental illness.

It would be silly to tell someone to just “buckle down” and “get over” cancer, and the same applies to mental illness. Also, don’t assume that someone is okay just because they look or act okay or sometimes smile or laugh. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses can often be hidden, but the person can still be in considerable internal distress. Provide support and reassurance when you know someone is having difficulty managing their illness.

5) Be a role model.

Stigma is often fueled by lack of awareness and inaccurate information. Model these stigma-reducing strategies through your own comments and behavior and politely teach them to your friends, family, co-workers and others in your sphere of influence. Spread the word that treatment works and recovery is possible. Changing attitudes takes time, but repetition is the key, so keep getting the word out to bring about a positive shift in how we treat others.

Former US President Bill Clinton said it very nicely: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” Take the next step. Adopt these simple tools and you can help move the needle in the direction of getting rid of stigma once and for all.

Here’s a question: What can you do to help reduce stigma about mental illness? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

  • Theresa Larsen

    Great article. I think a lot of people aren’t sure what they can do to help or that they are even perpetuating the stigma. This makes it clear and easy to understand.

  • Thanks Theresa! I agree that sometimes people aren’t aware they are being insensitive and are at a loss for how to do better. But with more awareness and a little practice, we can all treat others with more respect and dignity.

  • Kitt O’Malley

    Thanks. (Short and sweet comment.)

  • Marcie Timmerman

    Short and sweet. Very good! Mind if I make an infographic about this?

  • Excellent! I will pass on your “Let it begin with me” message.

  • Theresa Larsen

    This is a common problem, especially the language part. I just wrote about a personal experience I had, specifically on calling someone mentally ill and how I don’t like that saying. I haven’t posted it yet because I sent it off to see if someone wanted to publish it. I’ll let you know when it’s out. Thanks again, your articles are very interesting and informative.

  • Susanne Johnson

    Great article! We need to work all together to break the stigma. I would appreciate if
    All readers here would give us 10 min. of their time to share their personal story about mental health disorders and the stigma. You don’t have to be in recovery or yourself affected by any disorder, we also love to hear from professionals and families of people with any mental health problem or addiction issue. Please go to http://www.HeroesInRecover.com, “share your story”, “q&A” or submit your own writing. Every voice counts. Please write my name on top of the box “Susanne” so I will get copied. many, many thanks to all who take the time.
    Susanne Johnson
    Lead advocate ‘Heroes In Recovery’

  • DavidSusman

    I always appreciate your comments and support. You are doing great work with your advocacy. Thanks.

  • Check out a interview I did online last year

    Accepting Schizo-Affective Disorder: A Mother’s Most Difficult Challenge | Caregivers, Family & Friends


  • Thank you so much for sharing information to help stop stigma against mental illness. Means so much. Sharing. <3

  • Debra LeBlanc

    This is tough. I had a friend tell me today that all I need to do is get a job that is physical, and forget about medication – it ruins my body.

  • Jennafer McKay

    I’m so sorry to hear that Debra! I’ve heard similar comments, even from my doctor! But people who’ve been there know. This is real, and if we had the magic answers we’d do it, right?!! Hoping you are having progress in what you need. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing.

  • waleed alsuhibani

    Fantastic steps, i like Mental Illness Stigma Quiz
    Is it validated questionnaire or only give the Person some thoughts about his feeling and stigma toward mental illness?
    Mind if I translate this questions to Arabic and i post it to my twitter account
    Thanks for all of your good articles

  • Waleed, I’m glad you liked the quiz. It’s not a validated instrument, just common scenarios related to mental illness and stigma. Please feel free to translate and post to your social media; I’d appreciate it if you would include a link back to my original post. Thanks!

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