Mental Illness Stigma

By Michele C. Hollow  @michelechollow
January 27, 2017

While people have preconceived notions about mental healht, the best way to treat mental illness stigma is to stop it before it gets out of hand.

Madeline Fletcher overheard her nine-year-old daughter tell a store clerk that she’s autistic. What surprised her was the follow up.

“She very maturely told the clerk that she isn’t defined by her autism,” Fletcher said. “We talk a lot about this at home. I guess it sunk in.”


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Laurie Helfer had a similar talk with her 12-year-old son. He has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). “I was concerned that he would be defined by his ADHD. I’m not bothered when I see the term ‘special needs kids’ as opposed to ‘kids with special needs.’ I’m more concerned with the sensitivity towards his needs.”

Both parents have encouraged their children and reassured them that they are smart. “There are some things he excels in and others that take him longer to complete,” Helfer said. “I also told him that just because he does or says something in a different way, doesn’t make it incorrect. He does it his way. I’m concerned with a label when it discourages, segregates, and includes preconceived notions.”

Language, however, can matter when it’s hurtful, particularly when it pertains to mental illness stigma. No one wants to be identified as their mental health illness. We wouldn’t say, “the bulimic girl.” We’d say, “the girl with bulimia.” Bulimia is just one part of who she is, not the whole.

“And we’d never call someone ‘retarded,’” said Fletcher. “Mental illness should be treated like any other disease. That’s why we need to understand it and to teach others. Hopefully, they’ll become more compassionate and less judgmental.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines mental illness as a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, or mood. It may also affect one’s ability to relate to others and function each day. According to NAMI, one in five adults experiences a mental health condition every year, and one in 17 lives with a serious mental illness. Half of mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75 percent develop by age 24.

“What makes it so challenging are the preconceived ideas people have about people with mental illness,” Fletcher said. “There are so many different types of mental illness, and people, even well meaning ones, get confused. That’s why I educate my child. She shouldn’t feel ashamed for something that’s out of her control.”

The best way to treat mental illness stigmas is to stop them before they get out of hand. Talk openly about mental health. Don’t keep it a secret. “By talking about it, we educate others,” said Helfer.

Fletcher has seen opinions change toward her daughter once they got to know her. “Being autistic, she sometimes misses social cues,” Fletcher said. “Some people may take that as being rude. We are working with her at school and at home. She talks about her autism and has friends who understand because we are open about it.”

For many it takes courage to share personal information. Some people worry that they could be discriminated in a work environment or that someone won’t like them because of their mental illness. “That’s why we need to keep the discussions going,” said Helfer.

NAMI recommends advocating for mental illness stigma reform by writing to local legislators about getting mental health programs funded and educating everyone on mental health matters. The organization also suggests building a strong support system. If your child is in school, talk to his teachers, the administrators, and social workers on staff. Get outside help from professional counselors. Ask your doctor, school, or friend to recommend a mental health counselor. Having someone to talk to helps. You can also call the NAMI helpline at 800-950-NAMI.


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April 01, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA