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How to Kick the Stigma of Mental Illness to the Curb

Help end the stigmatization associated with symptoms of complex trauma.

Key points

  • Around half of adults in the U.S. who are living with mental illness are not receiving treatment.
  • Types of stigma include self-stigma, public stigma, professional stigma, and institutional-related stigma.
  • Misconceptions about a trauma survivor’s experiences can lead to dismissive attitudes.
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Despite therapeutic and pharmacological advances and public awareness in understanding chronic mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these conditions are still stigmatized. Misconceptions about a trauma survivor’s lived experiences have often led to dismissive attitudes and finger-pointing at those living with the after-effects of trauma as something being inherently “wrong” with them instead of focusing on what may have gone wrong in their childhood.

This type of stigma is defined as the “disgrace, social disapproval, or social discrediting” of someone who has experienced profound trauma and/or is living with mental health challenges (Subu et al., 2021). It is commonly reported that survivors of complex childhood trauma face stigma from family, friends, their significant other, or their community including their workplace, which can prevent them from seeking help. It is estimated that over half (54.7%) of adults in the United States who are living with mental illness are not receiving treatment. That could represent as many as 28 million adults.

There are four types of commonly reported stigmatization:

  • Self-stigma refers to negative beliefs or attitudes a person holds about their own mental illness.
  • Public stigma refers to negative biases towards mental illness in general.
  • Professional stigma relates to healthcare employees holding stigmatized attitudes toward their patients.
  • Institutional-related stigma refers to negative attitudes or beliefs that an organization holds about mental illness.

Adding another layer of stigmatization is that many who live with the effects of complex trauma are told to “let it go,” “get over it,” or “move on.” This kind of toxic positivity can lead to increased feelings of shame or worthlessness, which can negatively reinforce treatment avoidance and stigmatization.

Many living in the aftermath of complex childhood trauma also live with a host of physical, emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems, including depression, anxiety, diagnoses of borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, fibromyalgia, skin disorders such as rashes or hives, addiction, gastrointestinal problems, social phobias, headaches, chronic asthma, high blood pressure, limited mobility, or other forms of chronic pain. Stigma can be further exacerbated in marginalized groups such as women, people of color, or the LGBTQIA+ community. Marginalized groups are often wrongly labeled as “crazy,” “overly sensitive,” or “dramatic,” which can lead to feeling unheard, unseen, and misunderstood.

How to Reduce Stigma

1. Educate yourself. Be discerning with what you read on social media to reduce perceptions of stigmatization. Social media forums, private groups, or posts from therapists can be used to increase mental health awareness and mental illness acceptance. Other options include enrolling in a community course or joining a local organization that helps educate on stigmatization and mental illness so you can challenge common myths and social stereotypes.

2. Research. Ongoing research is necessary in order to increase our knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of mental illness. Factors that can create—or perpetuate—mental illness stigmatization include: social groups, poverty, social media influences, intimate relationship abuse, and family biases. Research should foster shedding light on a deeper understanding of how these variables may affect mental health and stigmatization.

3. Remove self-stigma. Be a brave voice for others living with the effects of childhood trauma, traumatic stress, or mental illness. Learn self-compassion and teach others how to enhance their self-esteem, self-advocacy, and personal empowerment. Educate others on your experiences in (re)learning how to feel safe after trauma to reduce feelings of social isolation.

4. Advocate. Volunteer at organizations that educate on mental health, mental health risks, or childhood trauma to help advocate for people living with mental health challenges. Further, persons living with mental illness need to know how to advocate for themselves. Self-advocacy includes knowing how and where to access necessary resources, practicing self-care including work/life balance, and ensuring their safety, including when (or whether) to disclose their diagnosis.


Kohn, R., et al. (2018). Mental health in the Americas: An overview of the treatment gap. Pan American Journal of Public Health, 42, 1 – 10.

Subu, M.A., et al. (2021). Types of stigma experienced by patients with mental illness and mental health nurses in Indonesia: a qualitative analysis. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 15(77), 1 – 12.

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