How Stereotypes Stop the Mentally Ill from Getting Help

Contending with a mental disorder is hard enough, but people who have one face another hurdle: the stigma associated with their illness. There is a widespread aversion to the mentally ill†that is made up of “ignorance, fear, and discrimination.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has bipolar disorder, says that the things people say about it “can be painful.” Those things include the belief that people who are depressed are indulging themselves and should snap out of it. Dolly Parton subscribes to this notion and says it worked for her: she claims she ended a bout of depression by telling herself, “Right, get off your fat butt, or if you really are suicidal, then go and shoot your brains out.’” She doesn’t take into account that she probably could not have done that if her depression hadn’t been running its course on its own.

Another popular conception is that successful people don’t get depressed. Winona Ryder believed this herself, but at a time in her life when she had it all, she was hit with depression. “I remember feeling, ‘I can’t complain about anything, because I’m so lucky, I’m so lucky,”” she says.

Depression isn’t the only mental disorder weighted with misconceptions. For instance, some other disorders are believed to make everyone who experiences them violent.

It is not an overstatement to say that this stigma, though it exists only as abstract attitudes in other people’s minds, has devastating health consequences for people who are mentally ill. The United States Surgeon General wrote in a 1999 report that the stigma

reduces patientsí access to resources and opportunities (e.g., housing, jobs) and leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking, and wanting to pay for, care. In its most overt and egregious form, stigma results in outright discrimination and abuse. More tragically, it deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society.

The worst news there in terms of medical outcomes is that people do not seek help because they do not want to admit to themselves or for others to learn that they have a mental disorder. Zeta-Jones wants that to change. By talking publicly about her condition, she says, “I hope I can help remove any stigma attached to it, and that those who didn’t have it under control will seek help with all that is available to treat it.”

The audience for her message is large. More than a quarter of the American population suffers from a mental disorder in any one year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Looking just at depression, the American Medical Association reports that up to 12% of men and 26% of women in the United States will experience it at some point in their lives.

That means that a whole lot of people are affected when the stigma prevents people from seeking treatment, especially considering the impact on the family, friends and colleagues of people with untreated disorders.

That is not to say that people are always affected by an afflicted relative’s or friend’s failure to seek care. With some illnesses, a person may be able to hide her condition despite devastating symptoms. A sampling of celebrities who have been or are mental ill shows that it is possible to conceal the suffering, at least part of the time. Dolly Parton, Jim Carrey, and Rosie O’Donnell all say they have had depression, belying their cheerful public personas. O’Donnell says that she had lived under “a dark cloud” since childhood, but didn’t get help until she was 37.

The stigma is particularly pronounced in certain sub-cultures. One of these is the military, which expects members and veterans to tough things out. Acknowledging and nurturing emotions probably isn’t that institution’s strong suit. That leaves veterans whose experiences in combat caused post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isolated, sometimes shamed, and usually quiet about their suffering. In an article featuring the words of several veterans with PTSD, the Montreal Gazette notes that a “stubborn stigma…is rife in all ranks of the Canadian military.”

Sometimes religious communities also have trouble acknowledging mental illness in their leaders. A North Carolina Baptist minister’s suicide, which shocked his congregation in 2009, was “a rare outcome to a common problem” among the clergy. One expert said, “We set the bar so high that most pastors can’t” reach it, leading to depression. An organization called CareNet operates 21 counseling centers for pastors in North Carolina alone. Its president, Steve Scoggin, said isolation and loneliness are the “greatest occupational hazards” for clergy. The fact that one state has 21 counseling centers just for pastors hints at the problem’s†prevalence.

Another particularly vulnerable group is teenagers, who often do not seek help for fear of their families’ reactions.

The growing number of celebrities speaking publicly about their mental illnesses may help reduce the stigma that hurts so many. Education can help too. Informative resources include the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses and Mental Health America.

Photo credit: Thinkstock/Ingram Publishing


Wisteria K.
Past Member 4 years ago

Hi James W
You write:
"""""We need to acknowledge that many symptoms of "mental illness" are the result of abusive childhoods. I think distinguishing between "emotional damage" resulting from real life abuse and "mental illness" resulting from a physiological problems like schizophrenia or brain damage, would go a long way soften the stigma"""""

In North of Finland Schizophrenia is eradicated. The first time a person have a nervous breakdown or psychoses he get help fast with a method called "Open Dialog". After that they no longer see development of what we used to call schizophrenia.
In other words, it is not physiological.
This gives hope.

Wisteria K.
Past Member 4 years ago

Unfortunate the worst carriers of stigma against persons that suffers long lasting emotional distress is often the health workers themselves more than people in general.
And they have singled out certain diagnoses that they don't like, and do not want to deal with. Their lack of knowledge is an insult to us all.

Donna Ferguson
Donna F4 years ago

I appreciate this article, and the comments. I have struggled since childhood w/depression, anxiety and panic attacks, and social phobia. (1st time I'm mentioning this on care2.) I go to a mystery book club; the leader mentioned an old murder trial in our area. she said that the recently-acquitted defendant was out of jail "and wasn't taking his meds." I tried to ask how she "knew" that he wasn't on his meds, but I didn't have the courage to press my point and stand up to the stigma in front of all those people. I let myself be silenced in all their voices.

Deborah W.
Deborah W4 years ago

If it's true we're as different as each snowflake that falls, how is it we should accept for a second that all such problems fall into the "experts" one-box stereotype fits all? Absurd.

kathrynelizabet Etier

It's not just the jokes and prejudice that are harmful. Minimizing someone's suffering because it is "only emotional" takes an awful toll. If you're a teenager, "it's a phase," or "you'll grow out of it," if you're a female, "oh, it's a woman thing," or "you know how women are," or "drama queen." Also exasperating are cultural or family traditions that dictate, "WE don't have mental illnesses," or "no one in our family has EVER had a mental illness" (the latter from a man whose wife and three kids all suffered from mental illness).

Sheri Schongold
Sheri Schongold4 years ago

Mental illness, from depression on up, is no joke, but it is also nothing to be ashamed about. I have major depression problems and am treating it. Since I don't want to burden others with my problems, I don't say anything. But the callousness of many, many people hurts.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


june t.
reft h4 years ago

As bad as things are, I do believe things have improved even since the past 20 years or so.
I am glad that some celebrities have come forward with their conditions, as they give a face and a voice for the world to see that people with mental illness are in all areas of society. I know there are people who recognized their own illness when they read about different well known people and compared stories. Thanks to people like Catherine Zita Jones, Brooke Shields, Terry Bradshaw, John Nash, Carrie Fisher, Margot Kidder. However, we do still have a long way to go not only in attitudes, but also in ensuring that people get the type of help, and timely help when they need it.

Christine Stewart

We should surely assist people to get the help they need, not shun them for admitting they want help!

Anne Moran
Anne M4 years ago

Mental illness is a tough nut to crack...[pardon the pun]..

My companion is bipolar/schizophrenic, and through the years, the road for us, has been quite long, and arduous at times.. He was able to seek help from the very beginning; he suffered the stigma, but somehow was able to rise above it...

Love and compassion is what they need...