Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

How does stigma impact mental health conditions?

Posted Jun 19, 2019

When the next academic year begins, I will be teaching an Abnormal Psychology course, which I haven’t done in quite a while. As I have been immersing myself in the literature to become up-to-date on what has changed in the field since I last taught the course, I was struck by some of the more interesting research on mental illness stigma that I wanted to share.

First, while there have been some improvements on this front, stigma surrounding mental illness remains a real threat for those suffering from mental health conditions. In fact, I would argue that students need to understand mental illness within a framework that includes stigma to fully understand the scope of how those afflicted with mental health conditions are able to navigate their lives. Moreover, understanding stigma introduces the element of how culture shapes our perceptions of normalcy as well as pathology within a given society.

Stigma is problematic for a number of reasons, including that it could stop individuals who could benefit from mental health services from seeking the help that they need. As one would expect, stigma varies in different communities. For instance, Holley, Oh & Thomas (2019) studied communities of color and/or LGB participants to explore the role their intersecting identities play in discrimination and support regarding their mental health issues. Their work identifies the pervasiveness of stigma for those with mental health conditions, as well as the significant role the media plays in depicting the mentally ill in stereotypically negative ways.

Holley et. al. (2019) found that LGB individuals with mental health conditions reported feeling discriminated within their communities and specifically identified being socially excluded. Interestingly, their research uncovered that lesbians of color and bisexual women reported less social exclusion than other groups in their communities, and even reported feeling socially supported by other women in particular. Additionally, within the LGB community it was reported that severity of stigma oftentimes varied depending on one's diagnosis. In contrast, within African American communities, stigma appeared to exist irrespective of mental illness diagnosis, and there appeared to be notions of mental illness being contagious or indicative of a personal, moral or spiritual failing on the part of the person suffering. These types of findings are critical in identifying how cultural values shape perceptions of mental illness, which can go a long way towards developing effective strategies for combating stigma.

Perhaps one of the most insightful findings they reported: A new finding from this study is that participants reported that newer Mexican immigrants, younger Mexican Americans, older African Americans, and people with less formal education may be more likely to perpetuate mental illness discrimination, suggesting a need to focus change efforts within these groups. (Holly, Oh, & Thomas, 2019, p. 23)

This type of research is important to help identify how individuals with mental health conditions may be marginalized within their communities, and why. Perception plays a significant role in how we treat those around us. One of the challenges of stigma is that it often compels individuals to remain silent if they are suffering from a mental illness, or if family members are. This silence adds a layer of shame to the condition, further perpetuating the stigmatization of mental illness. Silence is particularly problematic because it undermines opportunities for individuals suffering from mental health conditions to seek one another out for support and community. Silence creates the illusion that those suffering from mental illness are alone, furthering their sense of social exclusion within their communities.

I hope to offer a framework of understanding pathology for my students that includes the significant role stigma plays in how individuals with mental illnesses are treated, and in how they view themselves. Self-stigma has become another interesting expansion in the stigma research, for instance. I will report back this coming academic year regarding how my students respond to this topic.

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2019


Holley, L.C., Oh, H., Thomas, D. (2019). Mental illness discrimination and support experienced by people who are of color or LGB: considering intersecting identities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 89(1), 16-26.