Experiences related to mental illness and substance use disorder (SUD) are visceral for those who experience them but are largely invisible to others. This can put sufferers at a disadvantage, as not everybody is capable or willing to empathize with a struggle they can’t see or haven’t faced.
To make matters worse, mental health is heavily stigmatized in our culture leading to negative opinions of people with mental health disorders and creating barriers between individuals and treatment.
In this article, we will discuss both the negative effects and steps to deal with mental health stigma.
Harmful Effects of Mental Health Stigma
When barred by the negative perceptions of others, spending time alone becomes a strategy to avoid further pained judgement.
Additionally, if the person is lost in addiction, and engaging in self destructive behaviors such as breaking the law or putting themselves in harm’s way, friends and family may isolate– leaving the person to cope alone. Research suggests that without a solid social support network, even treatment may be less effective.1
It’s hard to believe that in the US, with its rigorous civil rights laws, mental health stigma is still able to close many of society’s doors, but it happens more often that you would think.
One study identified the attitudes adopted by employers that are barriers to hiring such as the viewing of people with mental illnesses as “incompetent, dangerous, untrustworthy, seeing them as needing “too much hand holding” or as being “not healthy enough to work.”2
In higher education, a particularly vulnerable time for young adults, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, thoughts of suicide and self-harm, affect over 30 percent of college students.3 This is especially true for poor and marginalized groups.3
Because of the stigma that exists, people seeking jobs and working their way through school lose out on support systems like mental health resources, workplace and classroom accommodations and are still expected to act like everything is fine and wear a smile.
Having a society that lacks a basic understanding of how mental illness works impacts everyone. Given that 43.8 percent of people in the US experience mental illness every year, it is far from rare.
Here are some ways misinformation about mental health and addiction harms society:
- A little over a decade ago mental health treatment was not an insurance requirement leaving many to pay out of pocket for medical care.
- People with mental illnesses don’t know where to seek help and are afraid of seeking help or information.
- Family and friends use phrases like “It’s all in your head” or “things could be worse” which downplay the seriousness of mental health.
- Others commonly view mental illness as a character flaw.
- People perpetuate stereotypes about mental health treatment, such as: “Treatment doesn’t work; “They will lock you in a padded room,” or “All Therapists are quacks”.
- People fear that if they discuss their mental health issues with family or their doctor that they will be institutionalized.
Dealing With Prejudice, Violence and Bullying
People with mental health conditions often behave in ways that make them stand out as prime targets for bullies. This is common for adolescents, but it can happen to adults as well.
Unfortunately, bullying has a correlative relationship with mental health that moves in two directions. This simply means that that people who are bullied can go on to develop mental health problems and may be more likely to be bullied for already having them.4
Major Ways to Deal with Stigma
Be Willing to Educate Others
Learning all the information you can about mental health disorders, will allow for more opportunities to educate others. Make sure that friends, family, and others around you understand that mental health disorders, including addiction are real; break the cycle of stigma.
Don’t Let Stigma Define How You See Yourself
It’s not uncommon for negative perceptions about mental health to impact your perception of self. You may feel at times that your illness is a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness.
Coping with a mental illness requires strength and though it mistakes, and relapse can happen getting treatment mental health or substance abuse can help you overcome what you are facing as well as dispel any harmful narratives you may be holding on to.
Have Belief in Your Ability to Change
If you have spent years trying to overcome substance abuse or mental illness, every relapse can be discouraging. Understand that regression, rather than being a character flaw, is an indicator that a lifestyle change needs to take place.
If you have been going it alone up until this point, try joining a support group or schedule regular appointments with a therapist. If you already in treatment, be candid about the problems you are facing. This will make it easier for your provider to make necessary changes to your treatment plan so that you can get back on the right track.
Challenge Mental Health Stigma
Conversations that involve prejudice and hate against people with mental health or addiction come up from time to time. When they do, it’s important to challenge these ideas.
With a calm and non-confrontational approach, discuss the nuances of mental illness with them. If there is a particular moment of your life you would like to share, that may also help to put things in perspective.
If more people stand up against stigma, it can be possible to increase awareness and compassion for those struggling mental health and addiction disorders.
How We Can Help
Are you or a loved one struggling with a dual diagnosis? Dealing with addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder can be challenging, but fortunately with the right treatment plan, recovery is possible.
Golden Road Recovery is an inpatient detox and rehab center in Los Angeles, California that combines evidence-based treatment with premium services and a warm, supportive environment. To learn more about our services, call us today at (877) 372-0536.
Mental health and addiction stigma is at the root of many social problems today. Thankfully, there are steps to cope with stigma such as educating and challenging stigma both in others and yourself, believing in your ability to get better, and seeking help if you need it.
Brouwers, E.P.M. Social stigma is an underestimated contributing factor to unemployment in people with mental illness or mental health issues: position paper and future directions. BMC Psychol 8, 36 (2020).
Warner, M. (2021, March 12). The impact of bullying on Mental Health. Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://med.uth.edu/psychiatry/2021/03/12/the-impact-of-bullying-on-mental-health/