We probably all know that mental health has been a taboo topic for a long time. In much of the world, mental illness is seen as something evil, a deserved punishment, or the influence of external forces. People who are obviously struggling with psychological difficulties are often rejected from society and viewed as less valuable, or even blamed for their current situation. But why is that? Why don’t we blame the person who breaks their leg for their misfortune, but we often blame the person who is depressed or anxious? Have you ever heard someone who is depressed say “Cheer up!”, “It’s all in your head!”, “You’re just imagining it.” Or something like that? Why do we so often dismiss other people’s problems as soon as they are not visible? Is the situation better in Western society, when compared to primitive communities that blame evil spirits and similar causes for psychological difficulties? Is there still a stigma around mental health today and what is a stigma anyway?
What is stigmatization?
How would you most easily define stigmatization? Stigmatization is, in short, when others see us in a negative way because of some of our traits that society views as negative. But why does it matter? Why would we even care what others think? Not every stigma is the same, and there are multiple levels of stigmatization. Some of these levels may have less and some more impact on our lives.
- In certain societies, there may be institutionalized stigmatization of people with mental disabilities. But what does that actually mean? Wrong assumptions and stereotypes are the basis for passing new laws and regulations. This often results in the fact that, in case we have mental health problems, we experience fewer opportunities in life and a worse standard of living than others. A good example of this would be that in some parts of the United States, workers with Down syndrome are allowed to be paid less, on the assumption that they are less able workers, which of course isn’t true.
- We can be publicly stigmatized. This includes the disdain that other people generally have towards us. It often arises from the misconception that people with mental disabilities are to blame for their problems, incompetent or even dangerous and unreliable. How can this affect us? A potential employer may refuse to give us a job because they don’t want a person with mental health problems on their team, or the current employer may fire us after they discover that we are struggling with mental health issues.
There is also self–stigmatization. You must have heard the saying at least once that we are often our own worst enemy. This can be especially the case if we are struggling with mental difficulties. Maybe that’s why we feel ashamed, because we think we are to blame for our own problem, that we are weak or worse than others, or we are even angry with ourselves because “Why can’t we just be normal like everyone else?” Such thinking can lead to a vicious circle of difficulties, as it results in less self–efficacy and lower self–esteem.
What are some other ways this can affect us?
Stigmatization can further negatively affect our mental and physical health. It can create doubts and fear in us, which will prevent us from seeking adequate help. It can distance us from people close to us and “take away” some opportunities. Likewise, stigmatized individuals are more often victims of abuse, which over time creates the belief that this is all we deserve, and that there is no help for us. That is why it is extremely important to learn how to get out of the vicious circle into which our psychological difficulties and stigmatization put us!
The main reason for stigmatization is ignorance. This ignorance often leads to the development of various prejudices, which eventually end up as discrimination.
- Why ignorance? Surprisingly a lot of people are not informed about the basics related to mental health and psychology in general. If we ask the average passerby on the street, they will probably not be able to tell us what mental disorders are, how they can occur, what they mean for a person and how they can be treated, and how they and their loved ones can help a person struggling with such problems.
- Where there is no knowledge, there are prejudices. But what are prejudices? These are judgments and ideas about someone or something that arise because a person does not know enough about what he is drawing conclusions about. Of course, they are almost always incorrect, or represent only a small part of the truth, and this is often distorted. Remember how people with mental disabilities and institutions for caring for such people are portrayed in popular movies and series. If for most people this is the only contact with mental disorders, it is no wonder that there are so many negative prejudices about them.
- Finally, discrimination… If someone’s “knowledge” of mental disabilities is based entirely on partial and distorted information they have received from popular culture, it is understandable that they are willing to avoid and discriminate against people with such disabilities. Why would we want to hang out, or work with someone we think is weak, lazy, less capable, irresponsible, or can become aggressive at any time.
If we want to help prevent discrimination against people with mental disabilities, we need to cut the problem at its root, and educate ourselves and others about mental disorders, and mental health in general!
If you are interested in more detail on how to fight stigma and how to deal with your and other people’s difficulties, we have another article on this topic for you: CONTINUE READING PART 2
Borenstein, J. (2020). Stigma and Discrimination. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients families/stigma-and-discrimination.
Dombrowski, K. (2019). Almost everywhere in the world, mental illness is a taboo subject. D+C. https://www.dandc.eu/en/article/almost-everywhere-world-mental-illness-taboo-subject.
Kako govorite kada govorite o mentalnome zdravlju? Hrvatski zavod za javno zdravstvo. (2020, June 6). https://www.hzjz.hr/sluzba-promicanje-zdravlja/kako-govorite-kada-govorite-o-mentalnome-zdravlju/.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2017). Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477.