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Mental Health Stigma

Rewrite Your Story: Let Go of Mental Health Stigma and Shame

By letting go of stigma and shame, you can embrace the life you deserve.

Key points

  • Stigma can profoundly change how others see a person and how an individual feels about themself.
  • Shame is a by-product of stigma; it is how we internalize the outside world’s beliefs about us.
  • Each of us has the capacity to pick up the pen and write our own story to overcome stigma and shame.

The mental health movement has significantly contributed to normalizing and continuing the conversation around mental health, yet despite progress in recent years, a stigma around mental health challenges continues to persist in our society.

Stigma, by definition, is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Mental health stigma is just one form of stigmatization that gets in the way of living a resilient life.

Patrick W. Corrigan and John R. O’Shaughnessy have identified three types of stigma:

Structural stigma is when there are policies or practices within private and public institutions that restrict opportunities or disallow participation for someone distinguished from the norm.

Social stigma is when people within a society hold a bias, avoidance, discomfort, or overt discrimination against a person who is somehow distinguished from the norm.

Self-stigma is when a person internalizes all the messaging about what the norm is, believes the stereotypes, sees how they don’t belong, and then lives with deep shame and social rejection.

A fourth type of stigma has also emerged, called association stigma. This is when a person is stigmatized for being linked to someone else who is stigmatized.

The Effects of Stigma

It is not often that researchers agree, but when it comes to the effects of stigma, they are quite unanimous. Stigma hurts. Stigma is damaging. Stigma ruins lives. Stigma harms potential. The mental health literature demonstrates that the stigma associated with mental health conditions prevents people from accessing services and getting help.

Although we know the stigma is real, how we suffer from it is in our minds, bodies, and souls. It is not imagined, but it can be invisible. And despite our best-laid plans, once we experience stigma, our ability to maintain our sense of self is deeply challenged and our resiliency decreases. We are left living within the blast radius of a force that hits from outside and within.

Stigma Creates Shame

Each one of the four types of stigma creates the same by-product: shame. Stigma is the outside world holding a belief about us; shame is how we internalize that belief. When we explore shame, the conversation often includes guilt. Shame and guilt are not the same thing. Guilt is the feeling that you did something wrong. Shame is the feeling that you are wrong. Guilt means we broke a rule, an expectation, or a standard. Shame is the belief that we are broken. It screams that we are flawed, irreparable, and ultimately unlovable. Shame keeps us in the shadows.

Early in my life, I felt branded as someone who became broken in her childhood and adolescence and was therefore an unlikely candidate for a healthy future. Labels like, “addicted,” “crazy,” “troubled,” and “lost cause” came from the outside world. These labels then moved from the conscious to the subconscious, resulting in the embodied belief that they defined who I was. I internalized the message that people who navigate fractured self-esteem or mental health are broken. I carried this story that the outside world wrote for me for far too long.

Rewriting Your Story

We need to be able to let go of stigma and shame. Is there something you are carrying subconsciously that is holding you back or keeping you stuck? Those parts inevitably bleed into the rest of our lives and hinder the things that actually matter. Letting go of stigma and shame is not only hard work; it is heart work. No one can do this for you.

The reality is that when you own your own story, no one can use it against you. The day I released my story with Unsinkable, an organization working to break down stigma, was the day I truly embraced this idea. I decided I wouldn’t let anyone else hold against me my mistakes, setbacks, mental health challenges, or anything else they do not think is good enough about me. My story is mine. My life is mine.

And you know what? Something amazing happens when you look shame in the eye and say, no more. When you pull yourself out of the shadows and reclaim all of your life, shame loses power over you. You regain your footing. You stand in your truth, fall in love with your imperfect self, and become your own protector and warrior. You stop fighting yourself and start fighting for yourself. You become the person you needed all your life. The one that sees your vulnerability and accepts you completely as you are.

Once you start to believe in your own worth, the voices and the power you let others hold over you begin to fade away. Sometimes, the bravest thing you can do is make the decision to forgive yourself, let go of stigma and destructive self-narratives, and write your own story.


Corrigan, P. W., & O’Shaughnessy, J. R. (2007). Changing mental illness stigma as it exists in the real world. Australian Psychologist, 42(2), 90-97.

Hanley-Dafoe, R. (2021). Calm within the storm: A path to everyday resiliency. Page Two.

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