Syracuse UniversityCounseling Center

Stigma Related to Mental Health Problems

WHAT IS MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA?

The term mental health stigma refers to shame, criticism, or lack of acceptance for those with mental health problems or those who seek mental health services such as counseling.  Mental health stigma is much like racism, sexism, ableism, etc. in that it is a form of marginalization and oppression that results from prejudice, bias, and at times power and privilege.  As with other forms of marginalization and/or oppression, stigma related to mental health often results in those with mental health concerns feeling excluded from opportunities, being misunderstood, experiencing additional negative emotional or psychological impacts, and in some cases, reluctance to seek help for fear of how others may perceive or judge them. 

WHAT ARE EXAMPLES OF MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA?

This form of marginalization can manifest itself in people’s perceptions, statements, and behaviors and can additionally be the result of institutional and/or cultural factors that serve to create negative perceptions of those with mental health problems and create barriers to accessing support.  Examples of mental health stigma include:

  • The belief that people with mental health concerns are lazy or not as smart as those who do not have mental health concerns
  • The perception that mental health concerns are a reflection of a character flaw or weakness of personality
  • The incorrect expectation that those with mental health concerns are more likely to engage in acts of violence directed towards other people

Mental health stigma is often expressed through statements and language that people incorporate into their daily language such as:

  • Use of the word “crazy” or “insane” to describe something that is unusual or unexpected
  • Describing people as bipolar when they have a range of emotional experiences and expressions
  • Referring to people as “schizo”, “bat shit crazy”, or “psycho”
  • Describing people as “weak” for seeking out mental health services such as counseling

HOW DOES MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA IMPACT PEOPLE?

As with any other form of marginalization, mental health stigma results in individuals feeling rejected, misunderstood, or de-valued.  Mental health stigma can also impact people’s daily experiences in ways such as:

  • Feeling lonely or isolated due to others not understanding the mental health concern or making fun of the individual for having mental health concerns
  • Feeling ashamed or embarrassed for having mental health concerns
  • Fearing that others will judge them or perceive them differently for having mental health concerns
  • Being afraid to have friends or peers see them entering the Counseling Center or knowing that they are seeking support services
  • Having professors, peers, or potential employers be afraid of them because of their mental health concerns

HOW DO WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

The most impactful things that we can all collectively do is challenge and confront mental health stigma.  As with any other form of marginalization, we need to address the root causes, advocate for those with mental health concerns, remove barriers to access and support, and celebrate and accept those with mental health concerns just as we would any other individual.  Specific examples of how we can each address mental health stigma include:

  • Help people with mental health concerns be heard and seen.  Listen to and validate their concerns and experiences, let them know that you care about them, and let them know that you accept them.
  • Come to understand that mental health and substance use concerns are part of our shared humanity.  Fear, prejudice, discrimination and stigma lessen when we talk about mental health problems as an understandable response to a unique set of circumstances.
  • Encourage and support those who have mental health concerns to seek professional assistance.  Assist them in obtaining these services if appropriate or welcomed.
  •  Evaluate the language that you use.  Do you use the words “crazy”, “insane”, or “bipolar” to describe people and things?  Do you label people? 
  • Speak up when you hear or see forms of discrimination directed at people with mental health concerns.
  • Attend programs that provide education regarding mental health concerns. 
  • Consider joining student organizations such as Active Minds or get involved with initiatives led by the Office of Health Promotion.
  • Think about how you personally support and interact with people around you who experience mental health concerns.