Stigma means a mark or sign of shame, disgrace or disapproval, of being shunned or rejected by others.

It happens when people are embarrassed or unwilling to talk openly about their condition because they perceive it to be different or weird. Some degree of stigma is usually associated with mental illness. For centuries mental illness has been seen as shameful dangerous, unpleasant, embarrassing, weak, incurable – something to be hidden away.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is so strong that it places a wall of silence, ignorance and fear around this issue. These attitudes have caused untold misery. It is damaging not only to the person with the illness, but also to their families, their friends and the community.

Stigma towards people with mental illness has detrimental effects on their ability to obtain services, their recovery, the type of treatment and support their receive, as well as their acceptance in the workplace. Is it surprising that less than one-third of sufferers ever seek treatment?

Medical science has made incredible progress over the last century in helping us to understand, treat and eliminate the causes of many diseases including mental illnesses. However, even at the leading brain research centers, no one fully understands how the brain works or why it malfunctions. Hence, fear of the unknown is a factor.

It is sometimes easy to forget that our brain, like all of our other organs, is vulnerable to disease. People with mental illnesses often exhibit many types of behaviors such as extreme sadness and irritability, and in more severe cases, they may also suffer from hallucinations and total withdrawal. The symptoms of their physical disorder are behavioral dysfunction. Instead of receiving compassion and acceptance, people with mental illnesses may experience hostility, discrimination, and stigma.

In his 1999 breakthrough report, Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher noted, “There is likely no simple or single panacea to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma was expected to abate with increased knowledge of mental illness, but just the opposite occurred: stigma in some ways intensified over the past 40 years even though understanding improved”.

So why is stigma so strong despite better public understanding of mental illness and brain disorders. The report finds the answer appears to be fear of violence: people with mental illness are perceived to be more violent than in the past. Are people with mental illnesses truly more violent? In fact, there is very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual who has a mental disorder.

The report notes, “Because most people should have little reason to fear violence from those with mental illness, even in its most severe forms, why is fear of violence so entrenched? Most speculations focus on media coverage and deinstitutionalization. One series of surveys found that selective media reporting reinforced the public’s stereotypes linking violence and mental illness and encouraged people to distance themselves from those with mental disorders”.

The media also offers our best hope for eradicating stigma because of its power to educate and influence public opinion. Recommended approaches to stigma reduction involve programs of advocacy, public education, and contact with persons with mental illness through schools and other organizations. MIRA offers programs for schools, organizations and businesses to discuss these issues with individuals who have been successfully treated for mental illnesses. Please check out our Awareness section for more information on these programs.

It is MIRA’s fundamental mission to erase the stigma of mental illness through awareness, understanding and research.