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Question : How does the stigma associated with mental health conditions affect treatment? What can be done to fight it?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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December 30, 2013
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The stigma of mental illness is a recurring barrier to getting help for it. It is everywhere and hard to get rid of.

There are dismissive remarks about mental illness. Belittling jokes about the clinicians who treat these disorders. Stigmatizing views are woven through popular culture.

Stigma is an important issue. It causes many people to delay seeking treatment. It also contributes to problems in getting care.

About half of people with symptoms of major depression do not seek treatment. The average person with those symptoms waits at least 10 years before getting help. Stigma is noted as an important factor.

The word stigma derives from Latin. It refers to a tattoo placed on slaves or criminals. It marked their lower social status. In much the same way, stigma about mental illness also “marks” people.

Today, stigma is any personal characteristic that society views negatively. It leads to poor self-esteem. It reduces psychological well-being. This, in turn, threatens a person’s ability to make progress in school and at work.

Stigma reinforces and intensifies the suffering of mental illness. A stigmatized person often feels like an outsider in relation to the community.

One way to fight stigma is psychological. Psychotherapy can help boost a person’s self-esteem. Friends and family members can support a person’s efforts to get help.

The other way to fight it is socially. For instance, awareness campaigns can change public opinion and policies.

A third and as-important avenue is to make it a basic human rights issue. Mental health advocacy organizations support the dignity of people who suffer with psychiatric disorders.

Stigma about mental illness is persistent. Advocacy efforts may need to be redoubled before psychiatric disorders are seen as illnesses rather than as jokes or personal failings. It often takes personal courage to overcome negative attitudes, and to seek care despite them.

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