Mental Health Stigma – What Exactly Is It?

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When we talk about the stigma associated with mental health, what are we actually talking about? Where does it originate? What does it mean? And why is it so important?

Essentially what we are talking about here is a failure to give the issues relating to mental health their due regard in respect to their impact on people’s lives. This will often entail a lack of understanding of what is considered conditions that have a negative impact on mental health.

It could also be a reluctance to engage in conversations about mental health. Or it can be a lack of awareness/unwillingness to accept the prevalence or impact of mental health issues. Of course, there are other aspects associated with the term, but the three above tend to be the most prevalent. And unfortunately have the most impact in stopping moving forward for the better.


In terms of where this stigma actually comes from, principally I believe it is a combination of history and culture. Over the centuries mental health developed a somewhat sinister reputation. There was a lack of understanding and misdiagnosis. Mental health disorders, unfortunately, were looked on in a negative light.

They have been seen as something to be feared and more often than not associated with evil. In the past any treatment was largely punitive in its approach, rather than compassionate; people were locked up and shunned by society.

This of course was in the extreme cases, in those less so, people were simply dismissed as odd or eccentric but never mentally ill. The mere connotation of a mental health disorder was far too undesirable for anyone to either admit to or bear. In these cases people were simply not treated, rather left to deal with it (whatever it was) in whatever way they could. This was fine for most as many would have been scared were they if they did in fact admit to a problem; they would end up in the asylum.

In the last few decades, the asylums have closed and there have been massive changes in treatment and clinical attitudes. However despite this, overall the perspective of fear and judgement persists.  No real concerted effort is currently happening to dispel it, unfortunately.   

Negative attitudes normalised

What does this mean? With no effort occurring over the years, to dispel the myths that developed around mental illness, these negative attitudes became normalised. Once attitudes are normalised, no one takes any notice if they are reinforced. I am thinking here of films and television with the stereotypical bad guy portrayed as ‘mad’.

Soon people, albeit subconsciously associating mad with bad, which fits in with their already negative perception of mental health and just strengthens it. With no one coming up with a counter narrative, these perceptions were and still are incredibly difficult to shift. Even now, with the spotlight firmly on mental health and major efforts being made to change attitudes, because they are so ingrained and unconscious, breaking them will take a long while. 

From unconscious to conscious

Why is this important? If the stigma is so ingrained then what can people really do? First DON’T be disillusioned. The main thing that people can do, that we should all do is make a concerted effort to bring the stigma from the unconscious level to the conscious level.

How? By recognising our own unconscious bias and really making an effort to draw our attention to it when it makes an appearance in our thoughts, words or actions. We need to note them and correct ourselves where necessary. You may be amazed when these attitudes turn up, I am often surprised/disappointed in myself, that despite all I have been through with mental issues and all my efforts to raise awareness, I still fall into the trap. The fact is, that it is so ingrained in our society.

Calling something or someone ‘mad’ for example or that person is a ‘psycho’ are just some examples. We really shouldn’t do that. Using those words even in a flippant way is not appropriate. Yes, it may sound a bit petty or knit picking or ‘too PC’ but it is not. It’s all these little things that add up and bit by bit to maintain the stigma. And it will be bit by bit that we break the stigma down. It has to start from ourselves, once we have our own house in order, we can start helping others to overcome it.

Time to end the stigma

Without the stigma in place tackling mental health issues will be a lot easier. What is more, it will be a lot easier for people to maintain positive mental health. And when people have positive mental health, the chances of them developing a mental health issue in the first place are greatly diminished.

Finally and most importantly without the stigma, those suffering from mental health issues will finally be given the recognition and compassion they need from all the people around them, not just health professionals. Which would make such a big difference, believe me.

Let’s start making that conscious change. Let’s break the stigma.

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