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Mental Health Stigma and How To Fight It

AMHS-KFLA’s blog features the first of a two-part series on Mental Health Stigma by our newest contributor, Hung.

What is Public Stigma and How Can I Fight It?

Stigma is a big part of life for many of us with a mental illness and/or addiction. For some of us, the stigma we experience is worse than the disorder itself.

What is Stigma?

By definition, “stigma refers to negative attitudes (prejudice) and negative behaviour (discrimination) toward people with” (CAMH) mental or substance use disorders.  There are three main types of stigma: structural stigma, public stigma and self-stigma.  Structural stigma “refers to the way in which policies and practices of private and government institutions intentionally or unintentionally restrict people’s opportunities” (CAMH).  Today we will focus on public stigma.  Self-stigma will be discussed in a future post.

What is Public Stigma?

Public stigma is the “public attitudes and beliefs toward people with mental illness and substance use problems and how the public endorses the prejudice and discrimination against them” (CAMH).

What are the Effects of Stigma?

Prejudice and discrimination can exclude us from things that are open to other people (CAMH).  These can include:

  • Getting and keeping a job
  • Getting and keeping a safe home
  • Getting health care and other support
  • Be accepted by our family, friends and community
  • Finding and making friends or having long term relationships
  • Taking part in social activities

The Media Contributes to Stigma

The media is a primary source of information on mental illness.  It plays a major role in perpetuating stigma. People with mental illnesses are often depicted as dangerous, violent and unpredictable.  “Reporters often emphasize the violent, delusional, and irrational behaviour of people with a mental illness and may sensationalize headlines or story content” (Stuart 2017).  Although there are still stigmatizing stories in the media, there have been some improvements in recent years.  Many countries including Canada have media guidelines that recommend, “avoiding sensationalism, glamorizing, giving undue prominence, avoiding specific details, taking an educative role, and the importance of providing contact details for support services” (Stuart 2017). These guidelines are helping to lower the incidence of stigmatizing reporting in the media.

How Can Public Stigma be Reduced?

Much of the stigma research has been predominantly focused on ways to reduce public stigma.  One of the most promising ways to reduce public stigma is through contact-based education.  This is where a person “who has experienced a mental illness tells their recovery story and, ideally, engages members of the audience in dialogue in order to create a transformative learning experience” (Stuart 2017). This method appears to improve social acceptance of people with mental illnesses, and has worked well for high school youth and health providers.

Advice for Everyone on Fighting Stigma

Dr. Heather Stuart, a Queen’s University anti-stigma researcher, and the Portail santé mieux-être du gouvernement du Québec have some helpful advice for reducing stigma.

  • Be kind and supportive.  Dr. Stuart says it’s important to include those who are experiencing a mental illness in social events and to make everyone feel happy and supported.
  • “Intervene when people make jokes or unpleasant or inappropriate comments” (Portail santé) about people with a mental illness.  “Remind them that their comments can be hurtful and contribute” (Portail santé) to public stigma.
  • Educate yourself.  Dr. Stuart says that there are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about people with mentally illness.  It’s crucial we understand that people with mental illnesses are capable and competent.
  • Use words carefully.  She says that the words we use can hurt or help others.  Avoid terms like “crazy” or “schizophrenic,” which aren’t really necessary.
  • “Openly express positive comments about people” (Portail santé) with mental illness.
  • “Support community initiative to fight” (Portail santé) stigma.

Stuart H. (2017) What Has Proven Effective in Anti-Stigma Programming. In: Gaebel W., Rössler W., Sartorius N. (eds) The Stigma of Mental Illness – End of the Story?. Springer.