Mental Illness Stigma and Stereotypes

July is mental health awareness month and continuing from last month’s article on maintaining mental wellbeing, this article looks at advocating and raising awareness for mental health. 

Mental health looks different for everyone. You can sound confident and have anxiety; you can look healthy but feel awful; you can look happy but be miserable inside, and you can be good looking and feel ugly or wander the streets homeless not remembering where you’re from. Just because you cannot see the illness does not mean it is not real. Mental illnesses are full of misconceptions, an issue accentuated by the fact that most of them are invisible. 

Stigma and misunderstanding

Stigma in mental illness is a serious social problem for the affected individuals and their families. Generally, people tend to be afraid of what they do not understand. The lack of knowledge (ignorance), attitude (prejudice) and awareness about mental illness often lead to stigma and discrimination for the affected individuals. To compound matters, negative stereotypes by the media and society portray people with mental illness as violent, dangerous, dependent, psychologically unstable and unfit to work. In addition to dealing with their illness, the affected individuals have to deal with social and economic consequences of stigma, including social isolation, marginalisation from society, difficulties in securing employment, housing difficulties and poor social support which are all important for integration into society. 

Unfortunately, the stereotypes continue to prevail regardless of the severity or recovery status of the patients. As a result, those who have recovered may find themselves relapsing due to the remaining stigma and unchanging stereotypes. Often, the effects of stigma and negative stereotypes tend to lead to barriers in accessing healthcare and people hiding their illness to avoid discrimination. Most mentally ill individuals are likely to find themselves depressed, with low self-esteem and unemployed if they do not get the healthcare they need. These are some of the challenges that mentally ill people have to deal with.

Raising the flag

What can society do to help raise awareness of this plight of mentally ill people? 

  • Education around mental health and mental illness is important. Mental illness is not always a component of violent behavior. Educational interventions addressing the myths, stigma and negative stereotypes are required. 
  • Replace mental health stigma with mental health support. Acceptance of people with mental health illnesses and supporting them can be expressed through the quality of care and support given.
  • Building trust in reliable health services and advice, showing empathy with those affected.
  • Positive attitudes from healthcare workers that are non-judgmental.
  • Media campaigns to create awareness of the causes of mental illness and effective treatment. 
  • Supportive community environments to reduce stigma, together with recovering individuals towards changing negative stereotypes.

For some, asking for help may be the easiest thing to do and an important thing to do for themselves. Unfortunately for some, stigma may be the thing that keeps them from asking for help when they need it. When mental illness is treated equally to other illnesses, more people will have the courage to get help and better their lives.

Silindokuhle is an Industrial/Organisational Psychologist registered with the HPCSA.  She holds a Master’s degree from UKZN and runs an independent practice specialising in psychological assessments, training and wellbeing.  

Also read:

Maintaining Mental Wellbeing

Growing your Support Network


South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG)

Lifeline South Africa

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