Despite the prevalence of mental health disorders and society's increasing awareness of them, stigmas about mental illness persist. The Mayo Clinic defines stigma as someone judging you based on a personal trait. Stigmas can be subtle or direct, but generally reflect a lack of understanding.

According to the Report of the Surgeon General on Mental Health, we've always had stigmas about mental illness. Stigmas lead to bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger, and avoidance of those who have such disorders. In turn, this leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness for those suffering, and can even result in outright discrimination. The report says the underlying cause of many stigmas is fear of violence, although, the experts say, the overall likelihood of violence stemming from mental illness is low.

Perceived stigmas may influence whether people with mental health disorders seek treatment. For example, a large study in Finland found that only about 34 percent of those with depression actually seek help and many patients stop treatment early. These findings were similar to results cited in other studies.

According to the researchers, there are three types of stigmas related to mental health:

  • Perceived public stigma of mental health,
  • Personal beliefs about mental health in general, and
  • Self stigma, or a person's view of his or her own mental illness.

Individuals weigh the perceived cost of engaging with mental health services and often forgo seeking help rather than risk others labeling them as a "mental health patient." Furthermore, the researchers in the Finnish study found that attitudes towards antidepressants were an important differentiating factor; individuals who do seek out mental health services tend to have more realistic views about the effects of antidepressants.

Overcoming the Stigmas

If you suffer from a mental health disorder, the Mayo Clinic offers these basic tips for coping with stigmas.

  • Get treatment
  • Don't let stigmas create self doubt and shame
  • Don't isolate yourself
  • Don't equate yourself with your illness
  • Join a support group
  • Speak out against mental health stigmas

In the preface to the Report on Mental Health, the Surgeon General wrote, "... [we've] allowed stigma and now unwarranted sense of hopelessness about the opportunities for recovery from mental illness to erect these barriers [disparities in availability and access to services]. It is time to take them down. Promoting mental health for all Americans will require...the willingness of each of us to educate ourselves and others about mental health and mental illness and thus to confront the attitudes, fears, and misunderstandings that remain as barriers before us."


Mayo Clinic. "Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness." Web. 26 May 2011.

Aromaa, Esa, Tolvanen, Asko, Tuulari, Jyrki, and Wahlbeck, Kristian. "Personal Stigma and Use of Mental Health Services Among People with Depression in a General Population in Finland." BMC Psychiatry 11 (2011). Medscape Medical News. Web. 16 June 2011. "Report of the Surgeon General on Mental Health." Web. "Chapter one: Introduction and Themes." Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health. Web.