One in five adults in the U.S.—around 47.6 million people—experience mental illness. Less than half seek treatment. And those who do often wait a decade or more to get help. Let’s let that sink in. A full 20 percent of us are struggling with some form of mental illness…right now. And, most of us won’t ask for help because we’re embarrassed or ashamed.

What’s up with that? The topic of mental health is more visible than ever. So why do so few people get the help they need? The answer is that stigma is still a huge barrier.

When someone has a physical illness like cancer, diabetes or even a broken leg, we rally around them and offer support. And rightly so. Research has shown that having a strong support network can promote resilience and help people manage stress during difficult times.

So why is it that when someone is struggling with mental illness, from the mildest to the most severe forms, rather than offering support, we throw out platitudes like “Snap out of it,” “Just be positive,” or “A lot of people have it worse than you”? This glossing over real emotional pain can do much more harm than good.

Misconceptions Of Mental Illness Are Still Widespread

There are many reasons why people develop mental health conditions and research suggests multiple overlapping causes. Genetics, biology, lifestyle, traumatic life events, or environmental injustice can all play a role. But regardless of the reason, mental health conditions are real health problems.

Stigmatization of mental illness isn’t something new. Marginalization of people with mental illness has been going on for thousands of years. Early beliefs about the causes of mental illness, such as demonic possession, magic, the wrath of a deity or moral punishment, provoked reactions of fear, mistrust, and discrimination.

We’ve learned a lot about the nature of various psychological conditions since ancient times thanks to scientific advancements, yet people with mental illnesses continue to be perceived as violent, unpredictable, or dangerous. Inaccurate portrayals of mental illness in television, films, and other forms of media further perpetuate these beliefs.

According to clinical psychologist Todd Essig, Ph.D., there’s a reason why we stigmatize. It’s a kind of coping mechanism, albeit a flawed one. The idea behind this way of thinking is that if you create a wide gap between the mentally ill and those who are not ill, that distance almost creates a buffer, like you’re safe because you’re on the right side of the gap. But here’s the reality: there is no wide gap; it’s a fine line. And, anyone can become mentally ill at any time.

Another key issue is that some forms of mental illness are confused with personality traits, mischaracterized, or perceived as character defects rather than bona fide medical conditions. You’ve heard them, “You’re so manic,” “Don’t be so OCD,” or “She’s schizo.”

To add to that, an abundance of Instagrammable #selfcare rituals, positive thinking mantras, and inspirational quotes can give the impression that mental illness is just a mood or mindset that can be treated without a more serious healthcare intervention, such as medicine, talk therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Why Stigma Matters

Breaking negative stereotypes isn’t just about being kumbaya. Hanging on to stigmas has some pretty far-reaching effects—and not just for the person experiencing mental illness, but for everyone. Here’s how:

It literally makes people sick

People who feel ashamed of their illness try to hide it and don’t get the help they need. This means not only does their mental illness not get better, but their physical health can be impacted too. Case in point: research suggests that people with depression have a 40 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases than the general population.

“As we continue to advocate for adequate resources and services to treat and support those with mental health issues, we must also address the role stigma plays in preventing people from accessing those services,” says Wendy Burch, Executive Director of NAMI’s New York State chapter. “The reluctance on the part of many to seek needed mental health services stems from their fear of how others will view them.”

Here’s another problem: The stigma of mental illness can make relationships difficult to maintain. Family and friends may distance themselves, increasing feelings of isolation. It’s a vicious cycle—loneliness can aggravate anxiety and depression and even trigger an inflammatory response that puts our immune system at risk.

It complicates treatment

Societal stigma can get in the way of how you’re treated. Healthcare providers, unfortunately, are not immune to stereotypes. Studies have shown that people with a history of mental illness receive poorer quality care for their physical health problems and are often not taken seriously when describing their symptoms for non-mental health concerns.

It has a major economic impact

According to the World Economic Forum, mental illness will alone account for more than half of the global economic burden from non-communicable diseases between 2011–2030. A big part of that economic burden is the loss of income due to unemployment. The true costs may even be higher when you consider how mental illness ups the risk for things like cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes.

And, then there’s the issue that those who have jobs will likely need to stay home sick at some point. There are over 200 million workdays lost due to mental health conditions each year. Add to that the fact that half of millennials and 75% of Gen Zers report that they have left a job for mental health reasons according to a study by Mind Share Partners, and it’s clear that addressing stigma is critical for both the workforce resilience and economic stability.

What We Can Do About It

The best way to beat stigma? Speak openly and honestly about mental health. Sharing personal experiences is a powerful way to shift attitudes. In recent years, celebrities and sports figures have stepped forward to speak out about their own struggles with mental health issues and it’s made huge strides in normalizing the conversation around mental health and spreading knowledge. Putting a face to mental illness and demonstrating that it can affect anyone, inspires others to open up about their issues.

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Last Updated: Mar 18, 2020