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Mental Health Stigma and What to Do About it

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

Stigma is something that many of us with a mental health or substance use disorder face. We looked at public stigma in a previous post.  Today we will focus on self-stigma.

What is Self-Stigma and What Are Its Effects?

“Self-stigma occurs when one internalizes the negative public beliefs about mental illnesses and applies them to oneself” (Stuart 2017).  It is believed to be “a common and sometimes severe reaction to public and structural stigma” (Stuart 2017).  When we self-stigmatize, we can experience “shame, secrecy, social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, reduction of hope and self-esteem, and poor quality of life” (Stuart 2017).

What Are Ways to Respond to Self-Stigma?

Researchers have come up with some strategies to deal with self-stigma.  These are promising techniques but they await further research.  In the meantime, you may find some of these strategies helpful.

Researchers believe that stigmatized individuals can be empowered to actively work to “create positive outcomes and take control over their lives, rather than [be] passive targets of stigma” (Stuart 2017).   They have identified three psychological ways that are protective against self-stigma.

  • The first is compensation.  This is where you “develop skills to help [you] achieve [your] goal and overcome barriers associated with public stigma” (Stuart 2017).
  • The second is to “selectively interpret [your] social environments to protect [your] self-worth, making comparisons to other similarly disadvantaged individuals” (Stuart 2017).   You feel more confident when you consider that you’re doing as well or better than someone in similar circumstances.
  • Lastly, you “can protect [your] psychological well being by emphasizing alternate social roles (other than someone with a mental illness) and actively overcome [your] illness identity” (Stuart 2017).

Furthermore, researchers propose a number of responses to self-stigma.

  • Challenge Stigma – One strategy is to “challenge and confront stigma and overtly reject cultural images” (Stuart 2017).
  • Deflection – You can also practice deflection “by believing that cultural stereotypes do not apply to [you] or by recognizing that a mental illness is not the defining feature of [your] identity” (Stuart 2017).
  • Avoidance – You can anticipate public stigma and “avoid it by keeping [your] treatment history secret, by avoiding interacting with people who might be prejudiced, and by socializing primarily with others who share the same stigma” (Stuart 2017).
  • Self-restoration – “Engage in self-esteem restoring strategies such as shifting [your] comparisons to other people with a mental disorder or dis-investing [yourself] from activities where [you] may fail” (Stuart 2017).

How Can I Learn to Overcome Stigma?

Dr. Heather Stuart has a developed a course for overcoming stigma in the Cooking Connections Program at AMHS-KFLA.  Cooking Connections is a program where participants learn how to cook healthy food, enjoy their cooked meals together and learn how to overcome stigma in a supportive and open environment.  Some of the past participants have said they developed a better awareness of what stigma was, and how self-stigma has affected them.  After completing the program, they have become more compassionate towards other people with mental illness and themselves.  They have also learned to deal with stigma better at the end of the program.  If you would like to get involved in this program, please email Jackie Stoneman.

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.