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The Effect of Stigma on Mental Health

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May was Mental Health Awareness Month. Part of our mission has always been to destigmatize mental health and open conversations. We’ve spent a lot of time this past month discussing and breaking down different misconceptions around therapy. All these discussions are necessary to chip away at the mental health stigma in our community. To close the month, we’re going to look at stigma itself.

The mental health stigma runs deep. Even though our younger generations are increasingly more open about mental health, our community is still trailing. Studies have shown that South Asian college students utilize mental health services less frequently than their White peers. Furthermore, South Asian college students had a generally poorer outlook on mental health counseling.

If you are familiar with the South Asian community, you can probably guess as to why this is. Some still associate mental illness with supernatural causes or karma, which is a little outdated. Many explain that their hesitancy to get help stems from a fear of others finding out. For many others, their personal stigma was the reason for their trepidation.

In other words, the stigmas and biases that our community still holds onto can seep in. Even when we know we need help, and want help, we sometimes don’t seek it because we’ve internalized the stigma.

With that in mind, today we are discussing stigma and its effects on mental health.

What is Stigma?

We all have our own personal biases, and every society is not without its stigmas. In social science, stigma is the disapproval of — or discrimination against — members of society based on observable characteristics that can distinguish one from the whole.

Social stigmas are commonly related to things such as gender, age, sexuality, class, or, in this case, mental health.

Where Does Stigma Come From?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, stigma is often born from fear or a lack of understanding. Inaccurate media portrayals also fuel social misinterpretations. Lack of awareness and education means old views that predate modern understanding persist.

Though the general public may be becoming more accepting and understanding of mental health to an extent, stigma can still be quite individualized. We might be trending towards a more cognizant place as a community, but many people still hold negative outlooks on mental health.

Types of Stigma

It is a misconception to think that stigma is purely an external force. Public stigma is certainly powerful and should not be discounted, but neither should personal self-stigma. In continuation, nor should we forget institutionalized stigma. These are the three forms that researchers have identified.

Public Stigma

Public stigma is likely what you are most familiar with. It’s the negative or discriminatory attitudes, ideas, and perceptions that others hold about mental health.

Flawed ideas, like blaming or shaming someone for their own mental illness, are forms of public stigma. It’s what we project onto others.


For anyone struggling with their mental health in our community, self-stigma may be all too familiar. Self-stigma refers to the negative attitudes, ideas, and perceptions one might hold about their own mental health condition.

Shame and judgment from others is insidious, and can easily become internalized. Many struggle with blaming themselves, believing they deserve their illness, or believing themselves to be dangerous. But these are nothing more than the stigma projected onto and implanted into others. It is not your fault.

Institutional/Structural Stigma

Institutional stigma is systemic. It refers to policies of governments and organizations that limit opportunities for people with mental illness, intentionally or unintentionally.

Institutional stigma, despite being a relatively recent point of research, has been found to influence both public and self-stigma. Researchers have expanded the definition of institutional stigma to include dominant cultural norms as part of the “structure.”

Click here to read more about structural stigma.

The Effects of Stigma

Public stigma and self-stigma are extremely harmful to anyone who bears the burden of that stigma. We are discussing mental health stigma today, but much of this holds true for people in other stigmatized communities as well.

Let us begin this discussion with the harmful effects of self-stigma. Remember that this is the internalized stigma and shame that we enforce upon ourselves.

Among people with mental illness, self-stigma leads to negative effects on recovery. These are a few observed effects:

  • Reduced hope
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Reduced likelihood to stick with treatment
  • Difficulty with social relationships
  • Difficulties at work

No one is immune to the effects of mental health stigma, as evidenced by the aforementioned effects of self-stigma. But what about external — public and structural — stigma?

Here are a few effects of external stigma:

  • Reluctance to seek or stay in treatment
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of understanding by friends, family, coworkers, etc
  • Fewer opportunities for work or housing
  • Bullying, physical violence, or harassment
  • Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover mental health

Fighting Stigma

One of the best, most effective ways to combat stigma is simply knowing or having contact with someone with mental illness. Stigma is, after all, rooted in fear and misunderstanding. There is no better remedy for the fear of the “other” than to experience firsthand that there is no “other.”

This is why celebrities are increasingly vocal about their own mental health struggles. Stigma is reduced when we are open with what taboo tells us we should keep private. About 75% of teens seeking information online about depression are looking for personal anecdotes from others who have struggled with depression.

Simply being open with each other is key to breaking stigma down. Of course, when living in a stigmatizing community, there is nothing simple about it. We know that fear of judgment from family and community is very real. But the only way we can leave stigma in the past where is belongs is by fighting it where we can.

Be conscious of language. Support others and be compassionate. Educate yourself, and educate others when you can. Be honest about treatment so we can normalize it. We are committed to destigmatizing mental health, and are with you every step of the way. You are not alone.

If you need to talk, SEWA’s 24×7 Crisis Line is (952) 912-9100.

Email us to schedule a free, one-on-one 30 minute counseling session with a culturally appropriate therapist.

Click here to read more about stigma, prejudice, and discrimination from American Psychiatric Association.

Read a study about structural stigma here.

Read a study about the impact of mental health stigma here.

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