Even though we have collectively made great progress in better understanding and bringing awareness to the mental health issues that millions of Americans struggle with daily, we are far from creating a welcoming and compassionate society for most people struggling with mental disorders. The stigma that many have fought against for decades still exists, and for most, it takes a special form of resilience and much patience to reach a point of contentment amidst judgmental statements, forms of discrimination, and a clear misunderstanding of mental health challenges and how they can best be addressed.
While the mindset is shifting, these shifts take much time. Social progress does not happen over the course of a month or a year, but over the course of generations. And changes in any given direction are never absolute. As difficult as the situation may be, this means that many Americans must fall back on themselves and seek ways to overcome and improve the situation through their own accord.
However, you should never be alone. Through the help of friends, family, and compassionate members in the community, many Americans can live their lives free from the debilitating effects of stigma and shaming. Support from others is crucial in the fight against mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. However, personal resilience is also a must.
Clearly Defining Stigma
Stigma is best defined as a feeling of shame inflicted upon someone else. When a person experiences stigma, they are made to feel ashamed about themselves, either for an aspect of who they are, or for something they did. Stigma is associated with a quality, a circumstance, or a specific thing, but may be associated with a person. Social stigma is not always a bad thing. There is a place for shame and discrimination in society, as we condemn those whose actions afflict others with pain and suffering. We stigmatize murder, theft, and acts of violence.
However, sadly, many people stigmatize mental illness, homosexuality, and drug addiction among other things. In the context of today’s topic, stigma against mental illness often comes from a place of misunderstanding and false information. People with mental health issues require special consideration, especially if their disorder is debilitating. A person with depression would need the help of their employer to continue to treat their condition and still have a place to work. The employer is incentivized to make this investment because the person is a great worker despite their illness and continues to do good work whenever they can.
However, someone with a stigma against depression may think that special treatment for someone due to a diagnosis of depression is unfair. They may feel that it is not up to the employer to carry the burden of the disorder, paying an employee for time off or giving them financial aid for their treatment. Some even believe that depression is not real.
But this is just one example of stigmatization. Stigma can exist in many forms and can make the lives of those already fighting against mental health issues that much harder.
The Types of Stigma
Stigma itself develops in different ways. One of the most destructive forms of stigma is the kind that is internalized.
Self-stigma, as it’s also known, occurs when another person or a group’s stigma begins to affect you to the point that you begin to take in the criticisms you’ve always heard, in a way that cripples your self-confidence and stops you from making positive progress towards better health. For example: if you believe that your anxiety is something you just need to get over with, that you’re simply awkward and bad at making friends, or that your constant worries, panic attacks, and procrastination as a result of the disorder are signs of ‘laziness’, then you are struggling with self-stigma.
Public stigma is a form of prejudice and stereotyping within public opinion, wherein people continue to propagate or believe pervasive myths that befuddle and mischaracterize mental health problems as matters of personal responsibility, character, or even morality.
Structural stigma occurs when there are clear obstacles and gatekeepers that exist only to make things more difficult for people with mental health challenges, versus other individuals. For example, any societal structure that offers decreased opportunities for individuals with mental health problems is a from of structural stigma. Forcing a child into a special class that does not adapt to the child’s needs over a diagnosis of mild dyslexia can severely affect a child’s development and education, by providing them with less challenging material and a permanent mark on their record due to a mild condition they can adapt to with some compassion and better training for teachers.
Much clearer and historical versions of structural stigma include Jim Crow laws, disproportionate arrests and violence towards black Americans, same-sex marriage bans, and more. Parallels have been drawn by researchers between examples of institutionalized racism and structural stigma against mental illness, wherein it is described as “societal-level conditions, cultural norms, and institutional policies that constrain the opportunities, resources, and wellbeing of the stigmatized”.
Having a Support Group
Because stigma is something many Americans must confront daily, learning to reject and overcome stigma is important for making personal progress in the fight against mental illness.
One of the most difficult forms of stigma to face is stigma exerted by health professionals themselves. When assumptions are made about a person’s abilities without inquiry, simply due to their diagnosis, it displays a clear form of prejudice. And when a mental health professional insists that you try a stronger form of medication or move into a group home without you feeling the need for such drastic and invasive measures, you’re confronting someone who is treating the illness, rather than the patient.
Firmly believing in your own capabilities can be hard to do when facing a mental illness, because so many of them rely on that feeling of anxiety and uncertainty, the feeling that you don’t quite know what you need or what you’re doing wrong. It’s difficult not to let yourself be bullied into places of misfortune when you lack assertiveness in the face of a debilitating and overwhelming illness. That is where support becomes necessary.
Speaking with someone successfully dealing with the same condition as yours can be inspiring and can help give you a sense of direction. Through the support of friends and family who offer compassion and understanding, as well as the examples set by others who have gone through similar experiences and have succeeded in advocating for themselves and adapting to their circumstances, you can find ways to deal with stigma by rejecting it, fighting it as it makes its way into your mind.