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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

The Harmful Effects of Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

There is a widespread stigma surrounding mental illness in America that not only makes it difficult for sufferers to reach out for help and receive the proper care, but also creates further problems. These problems include an increased risk of suicide, decreased physical health and can lead to further hardship and perpetuate dysfunction within the family. As such, it is important for family members to understand how stigma not only doesn’t help, but worsens the effects of mental illness. Instead of feeding the stigma, it is important to fight against it and create a safe environment where those who are struggling with mental illness can open up and reach out for support. An environment that allows them to be honest with their feelings and struggles without feelings of guilt embarrassment or shame. Such an environment would foster healing and allow for healthy coping.
Suicide is one of the greater concerns of mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorders. These illnesses carry an increased risk of suicidal ideation, along with a history of trauma or abuse, which is associated with having PTSD. Many people do not carry a single diagnosis, but will often have more than one. For example, someone with PTSD may develop anxiety and depression as a result of their initial diagnosis.  Suicide is not usually caused by one single thing, but is often a build up of several different factors. Family members should understand that suicidal thoughts rarely occur suddenly on a whim, and often comes as a last resort, when the person having the thoughts sees no way out of their current problem, having exhausted every other option that they knew of, having felt a great deal of hopelessness, despair and turmoil before reaching this point. It is not that they do not understand the implications and consequences, or that they just do not care, they just genuinely do not see any other options.
Not only do people with mental illness have a higher risk of suicidal ideation, but due to the fear, guilt and shame they experience as a result of stigma, they can have a hard time reaching out for help when they need it most. What friends and family members need to realize, is that those with suicidal ideation, already have an idea as to how others will react if they reach out. They often feel guilt over appearing weak, selfish or letting other people down, fear as to what would happen if they talked about it. Would they be involuntarily committed? Would they be shunned and scorned for seeking attention? Would they have to deal with strange looks from everyone and feel as though they were under constant scrutiny? What will their family think? How would this affect their career?

Without help, their struggles become more difficult and as they have a harder time coping, the risk of suicide increases further without receiving the proper help and treatment. Unfortunately, it is at this point, when the risk is so high, that the stigma is at it’s greatest. At a time when help and support is crucial, this is where receiving help is the most difficult. If it was rough to talk to others about depression, how much more difficult is it to talk about suicide? If people reacted so poorly for someone with depression being sad all the time, how would they react if they knew this person was thinking of ending their life?

In an article titled “Personal Stigma in Suicide Attempters” published in November of 2015, a study was done to take a look at suicide attempters experiences with personal stigma.  The main themes they found in these studies had to do with seriousness, care, “badness” and avoidance. According to this article “Patients and clinicians commented that minimizing, ignoring or distancing can occur in families because the suicide topic seemed too confronting for the family members and this created attitudes that suicide is a taboo topic. The relatives were not sure how to talk about suicidality and ignoring the topic seemed for them the easier solution.” The study showed that patients felt they were either dismissed as not serious or seeking attention, or that they would be considered chronically suicidal, always a danger to themselves and others.

A person struggling with suicidal thoughts may feel isolated with nowhere to turn. They can become consumed by fear, guilt and shame. Often people who are suicidal get called out for being selfish or desperate for attention. Fear of this type of ridicule might cause them to withdraw and try to hide their true feelings. Then there is the fear of what would happen to them if they actually did reach out for help. The thought of involuntary hospitalization and isolation at so much as a hint of being suicidal might cause sufferers to downplay their mental illness, never feeling fully able to share just how deep their suffering goes.

Another problem that can arise when mental illness worsens or goes untreated is a decrease in a person’s physical health. When it comes to a specific physical injury or illness, clearly defined and diagnosed, society tends to be a lot more accepting and understanding. What many people fail to realize, is how the stress that comes with having to deal with a mental illness without proper support or treatment can wreak havoc upon the body. It is important for those acquainted with someone suffering from a mental illness to understand the real effects such things can have on the body. Mental illness may originate in the brain, but the effects are much farther reaching. Stress causes multiple physical ailments such as headache, muscle tension, pain, sleep disorders and stomach upset. Stress can exacerbate already existing mood problems causing depression, anxiety, irritability, feelings of being overwhelmed or greatly fatigued.

In an article published in 2012 by Anne Gadermann titled “Comorbidity and Disease Burden in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication” A survey was done to understand the extent of comorbidity between mental illness and chronic physical ailments. And the societal burdens they carry. The article found that “The majority of respondents (74.9%) reported having one or more disorders in the 12 months before interview. Comorbidity was found to be the norm for both mental and physical disorders, as shown by the fact that 73.8–98.2% of respondents with any given disorder reported having at least one other disorder”

An inability to deal with the original mental illness, or the stress that comes as a result can lead to unhealthy coping behaviors as individuals may turn to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, eating disorders and other habits to cope with their pain.

In one study done, in an article titled “Stress and Coping Mediate Relationships between Contingent and Global Self-Esteem and Alcohol-Related Problems among College Drinkers.” Published in August of 2013 it was stated “Overall, the results showed strong support for Crocker’s hypothesis. Not only was contingent self-esteem positively related to alcohol-related problems, but analyses indicated also that use of maladaptive ways of coping fully mediated this relationship.”

Then there is somatization. Somatization happens when psychological pain manifests as physical pain, with no discernible cause. Sufferers may find themselves going through various physical ailments, from a minor headache to something more chronic and debilitating. With no organic cause that can be pointed out and treated, they are often given medications to deal with the symptoms instead of being able to receive care and treatment for the root cause. Since the root cause is never taken care of, these people may live with debilitating ailments, that can affect their ability to live a normal life, possibly limiting their ability to work or take care of themselves, and taking prescriptions that not only don’t deal with the root problem, but can cause additional side effects and at worse may lead to addiction or overdose.

Living with a mental illness can affect one’s quality of life. It affects the mind in a way that can cloud thinking and make even the most basic of tasks difficult. Those who struggle with mental illness can have difficulty socializing with others, are often exhausted from the psychological strain they feel on a day to day basis, holding a job or going to school may be difficult, and family life may become strained. What family members and friends often fail to understand, is that what looks like laziness, or weakness is a genuine struggle and a constant battle. Just as a person with a broken leg, may find walking difficult, despite how easy it is for others, someone with social anxiety will find public settings equally difficult despite how easy it might be for others. Someone with depression might feel so fatigued and exhausted, that even getting out of bed or taking a shower might be a difficult challenge for them.  Someone with PTSD might be living in a state of constant hyper-vigilance which takes a great toll on their body, leaving them exhausted and fatigued having their fight or flight mode constantly activated. The accompanying physical ailments make an already difficult situation even worse.  Many of these people feel further guilt and shame over not being able to do seemingly simple tasks, and the lack of understanding from others often can lead to further depression as they feel even worse about themselves.

Without proper treatment or support, those with mental illness will turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the difficulties of daily life. This may come in the form of substance abuse, eating disorders or self-harm, as they try to seek relief from their suffering. Once they find something that provides them even a momentary relief from their constant struggling, they latch onto this and it becomes the only way they know how to cope. Unable to manage their own emotions or properly take care of themselves, without learning the skills they need to work through their illness, the family unit can then be affected, possibly leading to a cycle of trauma or dysfunction. Parents and other family members need to realize, that when mental illness is not discussed or dealt with, it will affect the entire family and have longer reaching consequences… Stigma not only affects the one with the initial mental illness, but can actually create a situation in which it is passed down to other generations.
In a situation where people do not feel they can safely discuss mental illness or the problems that they are going through, if such things are discouraged, the children in these families are often affected.  Parents need to understand that they may grow up feeling that these behaviors are normal, or personalize the problems and feel it is their fault. Growing up in an unstable environment without proper help or support themselves can cause anxiety and depression in the children, and the unhealthy coping can also lead to their turning to addiction or developing PTSD from their own personal traumatic childhood. So the cycle continues for as long as the surrounding stigma prevents those within the family unit from reaching out for help and support.

The solution to all of this would be to openly discuss mental illness, without shame, scorn or dismissal. If mental illness could be discussed just as openly as with a broken leg. If those with mental illness could openly come to their family, friends, or even coworkers to discuss their struggles, and be met with patience and understanding, to know that they can still be loved and accepted, it would create an environment where they could progress.  There are many people who feel that by normalizing mental illness, more people would make false claims, or there would be a lot more cases of misdiagnosis.  Some feel that by making accommodations and allowances for mental illness, it would actually hinder growth and healing, as mental illness would be soon used an excuse. Perhaps the patients may have less incentive to try to overcome their illnesses, or would soon define themselves by their mental illness and develop a mindset where they have accepted the fact that they would never be normal.
However, in order to move forward and progress, one needs to have a basic understanding of where they are at and what they are working with. Failing to acknowledge a problem won’t make it go away. There will always be people who will try to take advantage of a situation, there is no failsafe guarantee. What is known is that mental illness is a complicated and difficult thing to live with, and it can be seen that it causes problems in all areas of life, and if left untreated has serious consequences. It’s reasonable to assume, that just as with other illnesses, those who suffer from mental illness would be eager to find relief, and would reach out for help if they felt they were able to.

We have come a long way in our efforts as a society to bring about understanding and accommodate people from all different backgrounds and conditions.  Great efforts have been made to allow those who would otherwise have a difficult time, to live normal healthy lives. There is still a lot of work to be done.  There is still a large part of the population who have felt unable to receive help, who are in a constant struggle and fighting to just get through the day, who feel they have nowhere to turn for help. There is still a need for improvement, there is still more that we can do, and it begins with just letting these people, the sufferers of mental illness, know that they have support, that they are accepted, and they can ask for help.


Works Cited


Rimkeviciene, Jurgita, et al. “Personal Stigma in Suicide Attempters.” Death Studies, vol. 39, no. 10, Nov. 2015, pp. 592–599. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/07481187.2015.1037972.


Gadermann, Anne M., et al. “Comorbidity and Disease Burden in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication ( Ncs- R).” Depression & Anxiety (1091-4269), vol. 29, no. 9, Sept. 2012, pp. 797–806. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/da.21924.


Tomaka, Joe, et al. “Stress and Coping Mediate Relationships between Contingent and Global Self-Esteem and Alcohol-Related Problems among College Drinkers.” Stress & Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, vol. 29, no. 3, Aug. 2013, pp. 205–213. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/smi.2448.


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