Nearly one in every five adults in the U.S. has a mental health disorder or condition which lowers their life expectancy, causes them mental and emotional pain and anxiety, and creates dysfunction in their lives and relationships. However, over half of these people are afraid to seek help due to an unfair and irrational yet pervasive stigma attached to their disorder.

As crazy as that sounds, it is an accurate description of our current situation with people who suffer from mental health problems. The fact that our society stigmatizes people who are suffering from a disorder makes one wonder if the fabric of our society is itself sick and desperately in need of help.

While there’s no treatment such as therapy or medication for our societal illness, the cure that will work over time is to counter widespread ignorance, prejudice and fear with education, understanding, and acceptance.

How Individuals Stigmatize People With Mental Health Disorders

Most people don’t understand much about mental health disorders, and due to widespread cultural stereotypes, people make judgements on those with mental health issues. Movies about mentally ill people are frequently wildly inaccurate, containing unflattering characterizations and scary exaggerations of symptoms.

Some people also tend to blame the sufferer for causing their own problem, usually out of ignorance, fear, or both. This is especially so in the case of substance use disorder, but addiction is more treatable than ever. Discrimination against mentally ill people can take the form of fear and shunning, disbelief or skepticism, misguided advice such as ‘just pull yourself together,’ and other unhelpful behaviors. Basically, treating people with a mental health challenge differently, whether it’s being overprotective and condescending or avoiding the mentally ill altogether, is discriminatory.

One common example of discrimination is that people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are legally entitled to have a Service Animal, usually a dog, with them everywhere. However, many people who wouldn’t think anything about it if somebody who was obviously blind or physically incapacitated entered a restaurant or store with a service dog are resentful when someone who doesn’t have a visible disability has their Service Animal with them.

Institutional Discrimination

Widespread stereotyping and ignorance about the symptoms and causes of mental disorders have led to discrimination in employment, housing, and even healthcare and insurance coverage. An employer may choose another candidate if someone suffering from a mental health disorder answers the disability question truthfully on their job application. If they don’t tell the truth and they then, for instance, need time off or file a claim on company health insurance related to their mental health challenge, they could be seen as dishonest and unreliable.

The same situation could apply to rental applications, or stating whether you have a pre-existing condition when applying for medical insurance. Also, there are fewer medical programs available and less funding for research on mental health challenges than with physical illness.

Police Culture is Not Conducive to Seeking Help

One glaring example of institutional stereotyping can be found within many police departments. Police officers have to deal with the dark side of life on a daily basis, and are much more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill an unarmed suspect or anybody else. While we do have a few bad apples on police forces just like in any other group, it is not helpful that seeking counseling and support is seen as weak in many police departments.

Because of the responsibility they have to act appropriately in life-and-death situations, police work should entail mandatory ongoing therapy for all officers on the job, just like mental health professionals are required to be in therapy themselves. Instead, cops who suffer from clinical depression or feel overwhelmed by the job are afraid of ruining their career if they seek help.


Because of widespread negative stereotypes and fear, many people with mental health disorders experience shame and other hurtful feelings which can exacerbate their diagnosis and make them sicker. Moreover, they can be in denial of their condition or just refuse to seek help out of fear of stigmatization.

Understanding Mental Illness

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental illness falls into two broad categories. The biggest category, Any Mental Illness (AMI) includes disorders ranging from mild to moderately severe in impact.

The smallest category (smallest percentage of people with a mental illness) is Serious Mental Illness (SMI). This category includes people who have a mental illness that causes serious impairment and interferes with one or more major life activities.

More About Mental Health Disorders

Researchers are not certain what causes mental health disorders, but strongly suspect it is contributed to by hereditary factors such as DNA or brain chemistry. Another cause could be environmental stressors before birth such as exposure to toxins or other substances in the womb.

One can be predisposed to mental health disorders yet not actually develop a disorder until after a life stressor triggers it. For instance, people who are predisposed may develop clinical depression after a job loss or divorce; some but not all combat veterans and victims of violent crime develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like other illnesses, mental health disorders are not self-inflicted; nobody chooses to suffer from, for instance, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety or depression.

Mental health disorders are treatable with therapy, medication, or both. For most people, having a mental health disorder does not preclude functioning normally and leading a long, healthy life, once they get help for their condition. People with mental health disorders, even serious diagnoses such as paranoid schizophrenia, have made outstanding contributions to society in the areas of art, science, and economics.

How to Counter Stigmatization of Mental Health Disorders
The best way to fight fear and ignorance is with truth, understanding, and acceptance. The fact is that everybody has problems. By accepting others, we build a safe environment where we will be accepted as well.

If we encounter a situation where an individual, institution, or the media is portraying mental health disorders in a way that stigmatizes those who suffer from it, we can directly confront the person or institution responsible. However, being angry and combative is not helpful. If we dispute the truth of what someone is saying with patience and respect, we will promote sane discourse and perhaps understanding.

If a friend or coworker shares that they have a mental health disorder, we can ask them what it’s like, what treatment they’re on, and also ask if there’s anything we can do to help. Maybe we can frankly tell them we’d like to learn more about it over lunch or coffee. If we gravitate towards people who suffer from a mental health disorders in an effort to understand, we are likely to benefit immensely from the friendships we form.

Author's Bio: 

Mike Williams Hurst is a California native who has worked in the recovery field for over fifteen years. He is active in 12-Step programs and is a frequent contributor to the blog at Present Moments Recovery.