What is stigma and how does this impact mental health/substance (ab)use treatment?

| Erin Moore, LCMHC

Great question! 

The dictionary defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Many of us have been taught from a young age not to talk about our mental health, that this is shameful and embarrassing. We may come from a family that passes down stigma generationally, or leads by example. Yet statistically speaking, an average of one in five people meets the criteria for a mental health diagnosis. 

Stigma often stems from a lack of understanding, as we tend to fear what we don’t understand. In addition, you may notice how mental health and substance (ab)use disorders are portrayed in the media. Substance (ab)use is often glamorized, showing what is generally perceived as positive while omitting the negative outcomes. Then, when someone does seek treatment for their mental health or substance (ab)use, this is met with heavy criticism and judgment, hence the stigma. The media also tends to portray mental health either inaccurately or at the most severe end of the spectrum for entertainment value. Being that public perception tends to trend stereotypically negative, there becomes an expectation that someone who is diagnosed with a mental illness or substance (ab)use disorder couldn’t possibly look like you or me. In reality, you likely have long-term close relationships with these individuals and have no knowledge of what they’re going through that you don’t see. 

The solution to overcome the mental health stigma? Seek to understand! 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) are both excellent resources for learning more about mental health/substance (ab)use support, education, and advocacy. It’s important to ask questions, do research, empathize, and connect with others on a deeper level. It is also important to ask yourself, how do I view mental health and substance (ab)use treatment? Through self-evaluation, we increase awareness of our perceptions and biases and reduce the stigma. We all endure hardship, and while the nature of this may differ from person to person, it is something that we all have in common. 

Why is this so scary you ask? Because being vulnerable is scary! If you open yourself up to someone you may also open yourself up to the possibility of being hurt. On the other hand, if you avoid vulnerability you’re likely also avoiding connection, positivity, and light. By vocalizing your own experience with mental health, you are directly contributing to the de-stigmatization of mental health and/or substance (ab)use treatment. In other words, you become part of the solution and help eliminate the stigma! 

Today's the day to make a change.