What is stigma?

Monday, July 29th, 2013 10:00

When we talk about stigma, we are talking about using negative labels to identify people with mental health problems. Stigma has it roots in fear and misunderstanding. Many people hold negative opinions towards people with mental health problems because they do not understand the issues involved and because they are relying on myths and misconceptions.

International research and policy documents identify stigma as one of the most persistent barriers to understanding mental health problems and the importance of mental health. Stigma has been described as:

“A cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid and discriminate against people with mental ill health. Stigma leads others to avoid living, socialising, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders -especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalise public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment.”[1]

In short, there are three core issues arising out of social stigma. These are:

  1. Lack of knowledge (ignorance)
    People in general have little understanding of mental health problems and much of the information they do have is factually incorrect. There is a serious need to convey more useful information about mental health to people, such as how to recognise the features of mental health problems and where to get help.
  2. Negative attitudes (prejudice)
    Anxiety, fear and avoidance of people with mental health problems are common feelings experienced by people. These negatives attitudes also exist for people with mental health problems who anticipate rejection and discrimination and therefore impose upon themselves a form of ‘self-stigma’ or an internalised stigma.
  3. Hostile behaviour (discrimination)
    People with a mental health difficulty must enjoy the same rights on an equal basis with everyone without discrimination. Treating people with mental health problems differently can result in social exclusion, denial of rights such as housing, employment and education and disadvantage.

[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2004.

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