Shunning someone because of an illness seems ludicrous in our day of promising treatments and pink ribbon campaigns. But what if your friend, neighbor, or co-worker had a mental illness? If you or someone you love has experienced mental illness, you know firsthand that society continues to stigmatize diseases of the brain.

What is stigma? The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research describes stigma as a “mark of shame or disgrace” with four components, each component building upon the previous: labeling; stereotyping; creating a division between a superior “us” and an inferior “them”; and discriminating against the person who has been labeled.

How is stigma harmful? Stigma compromises the lives of individuals with mental illnesses. Because of stigma, these individuals may face lack of acceptance, job and housing discrimination, and even verbal and physical abuse. While language and behavior can reflect negative perceptions about mental illness, stigma is not simply about using the wrong word or action. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), at its core stigma is an issue of disrespect.

In a speech to introduce the National Mental Health Anti Stigma Campaign, SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services director Kathryn Power said, “Stigma deters individuals from seeking the care they need, and it deters the public from wanting to pay for that care.”

Nobody is immune from stigma’s effects. NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw told USA Today it took all his courage to seek help for depression in the late 1990s. “Stigma is incredibly powerful,” said Bradshaw, who is now an advocate for mental health awareness and treatment.

How can I combat stigma? Attitudes are changed one person at a time. Combating the stigma of mental illness begins with you and extends to your circle of friends and beyond.

  1. Start with yourself. Check your perceptions about mental illness. Do you attach labels and stereotypes to persons with mental illness? Are you among the two-thirds of American adults who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mistakenly believe persons with mental illness can’t recover? Resources such as the National Mental Health Association’s Mental Health America Web site will help you become informed.
  2. Don’t equate individuals with their illnesses. For example, a person with schizophrenia is not “a schizophrenic” and is not defined by the symptoms of that condition. If you have a mental illness, remember that your diagnosis is not who you are. Inform yourself about your condition and your treatment options as you would any other diagnosis.
  3. Reach out to others. Tactfully correct others’ misconceptions about mental illness, and comment on news stories and entertainment media that perpetuate stigma. Offer support to family members or friends with mental illness. If you have a mental illness, you have the right to choose who you’ll tell. You may be encouraged to receive a compassionate and caring response. Help others understand what you want and need from them. If you decide not to confide in people you know, find others who will support you. Confiding in a mental health professional is a significant step, and he or she may refer you to a support group where you’ll meet others who understand your experience.
  4. Work for change. Anyone can be an advocate. Support legislation advancing mental health care, and write letters when you encounter negative portrayals of mental illness in the media. Join or donate to an organization that supports mental health awareness and treatment. The National Mental Health Association’s Advocacy Network is a good place to start.