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Mental Illness & the Stigma Around it

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I have been a social worker since 1989, and have been around mental illness most of my life. I have experienced, first hand, like millions of people postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and anxiety. I, like others have grown up with family members with depression, anxiety, addiction, and can see and feel what mental illness feels like and witness what it can do to others, others who I care about and love deeply. 1 in 4 Americans has a mental illness. Everyone either suffers or knows an individual (at least one) who struggles with depression, anxiety, mood instability, or an addiction. So why is mental illness in 2018, still such a taboo?

Now, finally through the media more and more people are coming out to disclose their own struggles with mental illness. Here are a few: Prince Harry saw a therapist about his mental health; Dwayne Johnson "The Rock" admits to suffering from depression; Demi Lovato has opened up about her bipolar disorder, bulimia, and addiction; Chris Evans has disclosed his struggles with anxiety; Lisa Nicole Carson, on her Bipolar Diagnosis; Ryan Reynolds has discussed issues with anxiety; Emma Stone, admits to anxiety issues; Lady GaGa struggles with PTSD; James Franco disclosed issues with depression and addiction; and the list goes on. So now I ask you..... Why do we still experience this stigma over mental illness in our society? Treatment for mental illness has come a long way since the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, so why is stigma still present? And more importantly, why does it matter? So let's break it down.

There are 2 kinds of stigma - social, and self-perceived stigma. Social involves the prejudice of attitudes that others have about mental illness. Some have reported feeling stigmatized by family, friends, teachers, coworkers, and bosses. Some assumptions could include: distrust, avoidance, pity, dislike and gossip. Other judgments include thinking that person is faking, making excuses, attention seeking, and that list goes on as well. Self-perceived stigma is more the internalization of such feelings as guilt, shame, feeling alone, and fear of having a mental illness.

Where did Mental Health Stigma Originate From?

Mental illness has a long history of being stigmatized in many societies. At one time, it was thought of as some sort of evil or the devil had possessed one's mind. Some treatments included cruel acts on those individuals. One being chipping a hole in the person's skull to release the evil spirits. With stigma comes a lack of understanding, invalidation, minimization which then could lead folks who have a mental illness to feel isolated, shame, and the most crucial, not seek treatment. This is why stigma is dangerous, and for some can be life threatening.

Why does Mental Health Stigma Matter?

On an average, adjusted for age, the Annual U.S. Suicide rate increased to 24% between 1999 and 2014 from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rated recorded in 28 years. However, due to the stigma surrounding suicide, it is suspected that it generally is under reported, (CDC's National Center for Health Statistics). Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. For every 1 suicide, 25 more are attempted. On average, there are 123 suicides per day (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). Another list; here are a few of people you may know who have completed suicide; Robin Williams, suffered from depression, hung himself 2014; Tony Scott director of Top Gun jumped off a bridge in Los Angeles Harbor; Don Cornelius host of Soul Train suffered frequent seizures prior to his suicide by self inflicted gunshot; Ernest Hemingway; self inflicted gunshot 1961; Anthony Bourdain, a famous chef in 2018; and Kate Spade, a fashion designer died by hanging herself in 2018.

Combating Stigma


9 Ways to Fight Mental Health Stigma:
(1.) Talk openly about Mental Health
(2.) Educate yourself and others
(3.) Be Conscious of Language
(4.) Encourage Equality between Physical and Mental Illness
(5.) Show Compassion for those with Mental Illness
(6.) Choose Empowerment over Shame- I really like that one
(7.) Be Honest about Treatment
(8.) Let the Media know when they're being Stigmatizing
(9.) Don't Harbor Self Stigma- which I think many of us suffer from
(Laura Greenstein; Communication Coordinator at NAMI).

If you or a family member or friend is suffering from a mental illness, read up on signs and symptoms, get support, and/or seek treatment. Treatment can reduce symptoms, increase support and better your quality of life. To obtain treatment, you can contact your insurance company and get a list of providers both for therapy, medication assessment, and psychological testing. Ask a friend, professional, teacher, or your Human Resource Personnel. You can also Google a list of providers, resources, and supports. There are so many organizations that provide support and education such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and check your local mental health facilities for additional information. Simply Google support groups in your area. If you do not have a mental illness, educate people around you about the reality that mental illness is more common than they realize and speak out against the ongoing stigma. No one should feel alone!

Here's a Few Resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention: 1-800-273-8225
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 1-800-950-6264 or

Please, please I encourage everyone to read Kevin Love's story below. NBA player for Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kevin Love's story about his struggles with Anxiety/Panic Attacks

Sharon Arnold, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a Clinical Associate with Family Guidance Centers in our Midlothian office. She provides individual, child, family, and marital therapy. Mrs. Arnold has experience reaching over 20 years. She can be reached at 804-743-0960 or can be emailed at

Jeney Caddell, PsyD. Verywell mind, Mental Illness and Stigma, The Scope and Ef ects. July 15, 2018.
Graham C.L. Davey PhD. Mental Health & Stigma. Posted August 20, 2013.
The Insider
CDC's National Center for Health Statistics
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

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