Mental illness is common. About one-fourth of American adults suffer from a mental disorder each year. A smaller group, about 6 percent of the population, has a seriously debilitating disease. Many face stigma and discrimination because of their illness.
Stigma can make the tremendous challenges of mental illness even more difficult. People may have incorrect preconceived notions about a person with mental illness. It can interfere with a person's ability to make friends, work and find a place to live. They may feel ashamed and isolated.
Researchers believe many mental illnesses are likely caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Others stem from outside factors or learned patterns of thinking and behaving.
Whatever the cause, the fear of stigma can deter people from seeking treatment. A survey of college students with mental health conditions, conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, found that stigma was the number one barrier to seeking help.
Mental illness: myth versus fact
Some of the common misconceptions about mental illness bring about unfair behavior toward those living with the illness:
- Myth: People with mental illness are dangerous.
- Fact: Only a small percentage of people with mental illness are violent. When they are, it's often in similar circumstances as when people who do not have mental illness are violent: They are intoxicated or abusing drugs, or they feel threatened.
- Myth: People with mental illness can work only low-level jobs, if any.
- Fact: People with mental illness have the potential to work at all types and levels of jobs. Many people with mental illness already function in high-level capacity jobs.
- Myth: People diagnosed with a mental illness will never be well again.
- Fact: Many people with mental illness recover and go on to lead full lives.
- Myth: Mental illness only affects adults.
- Fact: Children and young people can and do experience mental illness.
- Myth: People with mental health problems need to be confined to institutions.
- Fact: Most people with mental illness today can live in the community with the help of medications and/or support services.
How you can fight stigma
Everyone can help reduce stigma in our society. Doing so will help lighten the burden of mental illness for the millions who suffer from it. Here are some ideas:
- Educate yourself on issues involving mental illness.
- Use what you learn to educate others. Point out offensive language used to describe people with mental illness. Contact local newspapers and television stations that report stories containing negative language or stereotypes.
- If you have a mental illness, share your own story with supportive others. You will let them know that having such a disorder is not a cause for embarrassment.
- Support others. Help people with mental illness find housing, make job connections or feel welcome at your church.
Created on 12/19/2002
Updated on 02/21/2013
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Resource Center to Promote Acceptance, Dignity and Social Inclusion. Violence and mental illness: The facts.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Statistics: any disorder among adults.
- Mental Health America. Stigma: Building awareness and understanding.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Report: mental illness surveillance among adults in the United States.