Mental Illness Awareness Week: Fighting Stigma

Millions of Americans—at least 1 in 5—experience mental illness in any given year. Whether it be due to anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, a substance use or eating disorder, everyone can be affected either directly or indirectly. While the numbers reveal its widespread reach, mental illness remains misunderstood and stigmatized. Each year for nearly 30 years, Congress has designated the first full week of October Mental Illness Awareness Week, in recognition of the work being done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to educate Americans about mental illness and mental health, to advocate on behalf of those living with mental illness, and to provide referral information and support through their toll-free helpline. This year, NAMI has introduced an important new campaign with a theme to tackle the ongoing harmful impact of stigma: “CureStigma.”

What is stigma?

“Stigma” comes from the ancient Greek word “stizein,” meaning “to puncture,” also the root of the English words “stick” and “sting.” The word harkens back to ancient times, when the bodies of slaves, criminals, or traitors were branded—their skin cut or otherwise marked to identify them as people to be shunned.

While not literally embodied in this physical way, stigma today has much the same effect. A lack of awareness and a continued misunderstanding of mental illness can create fear, shame, and alienation, which in turn dissuade people to break their silence and to seek help when they might be struggling. As Ali Mattu, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons observes, “Stigma has its origins in our cultural beliefs about mental illness. It's made worse by unfair laws and maintained by excluding people who are diagnosed with a mental illness.”

And stigma’s harmful effects extend beyond those living with mental health conditions. As Milton Wainberg, MD, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons/New York State Psychiatric Institute notes, “The impact of mental illness stigma goes beyond the individual and the families affected by the illness.” Dr. Wainberg sees a more far-reaching effect: “Stigma has an impact on how systems choose to invest to tackle disorders.” “Even though,” he says, “we now have data that shows that mental and substance use disorders have the worst burden of disease worldwide; that people with mental illness die 15-20 years earlier than the general population; that mental illness is the worst comorbidity anyone can have because it negatively impacts other health outcomes; and that early intervention can truly decrease the burden of mental illness, health systems invest a miniscule amount of money and resources to increase access and evidence-based treatment for those affected with mental illness.” 

“Stigma,” Dr. Wainberg concludes, translates into elevated “morbidity and mortality.”

What can be done to fight stigma?

Dr. Ali Mattu offers the following suggestions: “We can change our culture by finding the courage to celebrate mental health.” How can we do this? “This means bravely sharing our personal stories,” Dr. Mattu says, “having the courage to ask for help when we are struggling, and talking to our friends and family when we are worried about them. Along with advocating for better laws and more funding for new treatments that reach large groups of people, we can be the generation that eliminates stigma.”

In their new campaign to “CureStigma,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness likens stigma to a virus whose infectious nature is toxic to everyone’s mental health, but whose cure is known and attainable: “Compassion, empathy and understanding are the antidote. Your voice can spread the cure.” With education and awareness comes a more enlightened, compassionate approach to treating mental illness. NAMI offers suggestions for how to get more involved. Participation in awareness events is encouraged, resources for sharing within your community or for contacting local media  are provided, and donations of time and money to support NAMI’s critical work are always welcome. If you or someone you know is seeking help, ways to reach out are provided here and here.

Education, compassion, and awareness are key to shifting harmful social norms and eliminating stigma around mental illness once and for all.




Mental Illness Awareness Week