Let’s Face It, No One Wants To Talk About Mental Health

The topic is taboo, and the stigma feels suffocating and isolating. We can do better.

April 19, 2024

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health, it’s common to feel different than other people or to feel like no one else understands.

Many people are afraid to share with coworkers because they worry that they are afraid of being judged, or worse, that they could lose their job.

Even friends and family are often left in the dark, unaware of how symptoms of conditions such as depression and PTSD affect our daily lives.

If you find yourself in a situation such as these, then you may have experienced stigma surrounding mental health. Stigma is an unfair mark of shame placed upon people with mental health issues, and one that we often place on ourselves.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • How judgment and shame affect how we think about mental health
  • How the media, our communities, and our own self-image can create stigma and delay seeking treatment
  • How we can all do our part to help people not feel alone if they are struggling

Yes, There Is Stigma Related to Mental Health

Stigma, as it relates to mental health, is when people who experience mental illness are viewed or view themselves in a negative light.

Mental health stigma can either be public stigma, self-stigma, or a combination of the two.

Public stigma includes stereotypes and discrimination held by the general population. A person can adopt public stigma and hold negative beliefs even before developing a mental illness.

Stereotypes include beliefs that people are responsible for their mental health issues or that those with mental illness are more likely to be dangerous.

Common forms of discrimination include denying someone housing or turning down someone for a job based on their mental health.

Self-stigma happens when someone with mental illness applies negative public views to themselves. They observe others’ negative attitudes. Often, they believe they are unworthy or should be able to control their symptoms through willpower.

When someone takes on beliefs like these, it’s easy for them to feel isolated, misunderstood, or that they’re the underdog. They may hesitate to apply for housing, get medical care, and participate in community activities.

In Her Own Words

DS participant Ramya

As a participant in McLean’s Deconstructing Stigma campaign, Ramya bravely shares her story of struggling with depression, OCD, and self-harm. And stigma.

DS participant Ramya

Understanding the Family’s Role in Mental Health Stigma

Family members can also experience stigma, both real and perceived. It’s common to fear that society or people in our communities will blame us for causing a loved one’s illness or will reject our family socially.

Family members may internalize public stigma and blame themselves. This can lead to social isolation and resistance to reaching out for help.

In family dynamics, it’s important that stigma and its rippling effects be addressed.

Approximately 50% of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Even if half of a family experiences a mental illness, the whole family feels its impacts.

How Does Gender Impact Mental Health Stigma?

Many societies expect men to be tough and to hide their emotions. This expectation means men are far less likely to seek help than women, but also have increased rates of depression and suicide.

Women are often expected to show traditional feminine traits, such as gentleness and emotionality. They are criticized for being “hysterical,” but also for displaying traditional masculine traits, such as competitiveness or aggression.

Women are also often judged more harshly for struggling with issues related to addiction, such as substance use and gambling. These conditions are linked—unfairly—to men.

Women with children can fear being labeled unfit mothers if they are experiencing depression or anxiety.

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Mental Health in the LGBTQ, Black, and Asian Communities

Stigma is even more difficult in communities or cultural groups where people experience additional, unique stressors.

What follows is not an exhaustive list that covers every community or every barrier they face, but rather, broad descriptions to show cultural patterns.

LGBTQ+ Mental Health

The stigma, prejudice, and discrimination members of the LGBTQ+ community face can lead to unhealthy coping tactics and a range of health conditions, including mental health issues.

A recent study found that one in three LGBTQ+ adults experienced mental illness as compared to one in five heterosexual adults.

LGBTQ+ individuals also experience barriers to care for several reasons. The National LGBT Health Education Center revealed that members of the LGBTQ+ community are:

  • Less likely to have health insurance
  • More likely to experience discrimination from health care staff
  • More likely to discover that clinicians do not have knowledge in caring for them

According to the 2015 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, in the previous year:

  • 33% of transgender people had at least one negative experience with a health care provider, such as being refused treatment because of gender identity
  • Nearly a quarter of transgender people reported not seeking needed health care due to fear of such gender-related mistreatment
  • 39% of respondents reported serious psychological distress in the previous month

There is a 40% lifetime suicide attempt prevalence among transgender people. For comparison, the U.S. population’s lifetime suicide attempt rate is 4.6%. This rate drops dramatically when transgender people can access gender-affirming medical care.

Mental Health in the Black Community

Although stigma regarding mental health issues is universal, research shows that it is higher in the black community.

For example, it can be unacceptable to talk about one’s mental health issues, even within the family. Family and faith are traditionally sources of strength for members of the African American community, but their emphasis can prevent people from seeking professional help when needed.

Black men, especially, receive the message to be strong and to deal with problems on their own. This masking of issues can lead to greater symptoms of anxiety and depression and to self-medicating through substances, such as drugs or alcohol.

Disparities in health care can prevent people from the African American community from receiving care. Approximately 30% of Black adults receive treatment each year compared to 43% of white adults.

Watch Now!

Dr. Nathaniel Van Kirk talks with us about why words matter in mental health

Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health

Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities face discrimination and also struggle with the model minority myth: the idea that all AAPI are well-adjusted and successful. This myth overlooks the challenges faced by this population, with research showing a relationship between discrimination and the mental health challenges faced by Asian Americans.

While Asian Americans have many strengths to draw on, such as family, community, and religion, they can face their own unique challenges.

Among AAPI folks, mental illness can be seen as a source of shame. Using mental health services may be seen as an admission that something is wrong not just with an individual, but the whole family.

Traditionally, the connection between mind and body is strong within Asian culture. People may present mental health issues as physical complaints, such as a stomachache or dizziness.

By seeking care for a physical concern rather than a mental concern, it lessens the shame felt about seeking psychological care.

However, the stigma around seeking help appears to be shifting between generations. Research shows that a person’s comfort level with U.S. mental health treatment can vary by generation. U.S.-born, third-generation AAPIs access more health care than first- or second-generation family members.

Mental Health in Latinx/Spanish-Speaking Communities

The Latinx community is diverse and includes people from 20 different countries, including the U.S.

One of the challenges around understanding mental health statistics in Spanish-speaking communities is that early studies examined numbers of symptoms and not the number of disorders in these communities.

There are also few accurate studies on mental health in many Latinx countries. Many research studies included just a few hundred to a few thousand participants. Because of this, it’s difficult to get exact numbers on just how many Latinx individuals live with mental health conditions.

A 2018 SAMHSA report revealed that 8.6 million Hispanic adults in the U.S. had either a mental health disorder, including substance use disorders, with 1.5 million of these adults having a serious mental illness. Of adults with serious mental illness, 57% of those under the age of 25 did not get any treatment (approximately 276,000). Of those ages 26-49, 40% had no treatment (approximately 308,000).

Some studies have indicated that the rates of psychiatric disorders in the Latinx community vary between ethnicities as well as where the person was born. Individuals born outside of the U.S. reported lower rates of mental illness than U.S.-born Latinx community members.

Some Latinx people have lived in the U.S. for many generations, while others are recent immigrants. First- and second-generation immigrants often experience challenges with combining their former and new cultures they’ve lived in. The difficulties of blending cultures can pose unique mental health challenges for Latinx folks.

The community’s strong emphasis on family and social connections may cause folks struggling with mental health issues to not seek care.

While religion can be a source of strength, it can also cause shame in those who experience mental illness. In addition, it can cause stigma in those seeking diagnoses and treatment. The explanation: belief in demons as the cause of mental health conditions.

Often members of the Latinx or Hispanic communities are very private. They may not want to publicly discuss difficulties at home, work, or within the family. This may lead to people not getting information they need to care for their mental health or may contribute to additional stigma around the subject.

Like other communities, Latinx people face disparities in access to care. Health care costs and poor communication from providers can be issues for some, as there is a known shortage of Spanish-speaking or bilingual providers.

Similarly to the AAPI community, Latinx community members may describe their mental health symptoms as physical ailments. This cultural difference in explaining symptoms to a provider can lead to a misdiagnosis or overlooking a mental health condition altogether.

Mental Health in the Media: TV, Movies, and More

News, television programs, and films often show people with mental illness as dangerous. Research shows news outlets are more likely to cover dramatic crimes committed by people with mental illness instead of similar crimes done by those who are not formally diagnosed.

When considering violence and mental illness, studies indicate those with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, not criminal, and not dangerous.

Common media portrayals of people with mental illness include, but are not limited to:

  • Being homicidal or extremely dangerous
  • Being “psychopaths” or “maniacs”
  • Being responsible for their illness or behaviors related to their illness

Irresponsible media portrayals include coverage of mental illness, such as depression and suicide, without discussion of struggles that led to suicidal behavior or education about what to do if someone is struggling.

The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention makes nine recommendations to help content creators craft stories about survival, hope, and healing:

  1. Convey that suicide is complex and often caused by multiple factors
  2. Show that help is available and identify how to seek it
  3. Portray characters with suicidal thoughts who do not go on to die by suicide
  4. Connect viewers to resources
  5. Portray everyday characters who can be a lifeline
  6. Depict the grieving and healing process of people who lose someone to suicide
  7. Avoid showing or describing the details about suicide methods
  8. Consult with suicide prevention messaging experts and people with personal experience
  9. Use nonjudgmental language

Members of the media can be strong allies in fighting stigma. Programs connecting mental health educators with journalists can get topics covered accurately.

The media can educate the public on facts about mental illness. They can reduce stigma by sharing stories of everyday people with mental health challenges.

There’s a silver lining to having so much media readily available to us. Folks are starting to use it as a way to destigmatize mental health conversations. From educational webinars to story submissions, people are turning to social media and their social circles to help debunk long-standing false impressions of mental illness.

What You Can Do To Help Reduce Mental Health Stigma

Researchers have identified three ways to combat stigma:

  • Educate yourself and others about mental illness
  • Protest against unfair depictions of mental illness
  • Interact with people who experience mental illness

Although the media contributes to mental health stigma, it can also spread awareness and positive messages.

There are many organizations focused on making the topic of mental illness understandable by the general public. There are also groups who work with individuals and organizations to train them to help individuals who are in crisis.

Politicians, athletes, and other celebrities who are open about their struggles can reduce stigma. Initiatives like McLean Hospital’s Deconstructing Stigma campaign share stories of people who experience mental health issues.

Social media plays an important role in the stigma of mental illness.

Misconceptions and stereotypes spread on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

What else can spread on social media? Empowering messages and support. A 2020 study of Twitter messages found that displays of support were more prominent than displays of stigma.

One of the most effective ways to reduce stigma is connecting with others who have mental illnesses. Such connections can take place through presentations given by volunteers in schools or community centers.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has developed several programs in which people can share stories in this way.

It’s worth noting that people who discuss mental health challenges or talk about being in therapy can be profoundly influential. This openness can help others who may feel like they need support or an ally.

If you’re interested in becoming a participant in McLean’s Deconstructing Stigma campaign, learn more about how you can share your mental health story.

Seven Ways You Can Stamp Out Stigma

  1. Don’t let stigma prevent you from getting the help you deserve. If you need help, contact a licensed professional. Do not be afraid to let others know that you have sought help.
  2. Consider joining a support group. It can be normalizing to talk with others who have the same experiences.
  3. Reach out to people you trust who can help support you through mental health struggles. You may be surprised by how your sharing can help other people open up about their own challenges.
  4. Own your experience. As much as it is safe to do so, be authentic. Speaking up in social situations or on social media can be empowering—for yourself and for others.
  5. Educate yourself on mental health topics. Learn the facts about mental illness. You can develop understanding and compassion for yourself and educate others.
  6. Be mindful of your language. You are not your illness. Use person-first language. For example, instead of saying “I am bipolar,” say “I have bipolar disorder” or “I live with bipolar disorder.”
  7. Let people know the language they use affects attitudes about mental health. If you notice insensitive media coverage, write to the media outlet. If you can’t find the right person to reach out to on their website, you can always reach out to them on social media. Be respectful—many people are not trying to be insensitive. They may just be uninformed.

While the impact of stigma can weigh heavily on many, we can all do our part to help lessen the burden of mental illness on others—and ourselves.

Don’t let stigma keep you from getting the care you or a loved one may need. McLean is here to help. Learn more about our world-class mental health treatment options.