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Overcoming Mental Illness Stigma

Mid age man having on on one counseling meeting in his home

Understanding the effects of mental illness stigma in our culture, and how to break through

There are many myths and misconceptions about mental illness [1]. Negative attitudes and stereotypes that may be portrayed on TV—or even by family, friends, or co-workers—contribute to the mental illness stigma in our culture. This misunderstanding by society can cause harm to jobs, education, housing, and other life goals.

The cycle goes on as the individual embraces the social stigma of mental illnesses. They begin to feel less deserving of help or an opportunity based on their condition. This is called “self-stigma,” and it leads to feelings of shame and hopelessness. Self-stigma is the most challenging type of stigma of all [2].

The impact of mental illness stigma

In the U.S., mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions. These include many different conditions that range from mild to moderate to severe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that in the U.S. alone [3]:

  • More than 50 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness each year (52.9 million in 2020).
  • 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
  • 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Experts estimate that up to 75 percent of Americans and Europeans don’t seek the help they need [4]. One reason is that they see how stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against people with mental illness still have real and harmful effects. Shame and fear cause many people to avoid the label of being “a mental health patient.” They may delay seeing a doctor for months or years. They may also drop out of treatment too soon, which also delays their recovery. 

How to overcome mental illness stigma

While mental illness stigma has reduced in recent years, there is more work to be done. The good news is that we can start to make a difference right now. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI suggests the following ways to help fight stigma [5]:

  • Talk openly about mental health. There are many platforms to start a discussion. Every voice matters.
  • Educate yourself and others. Take opportunities to learn from reputable sources, share experiences, or provide learning opportunities for others. Lack of understanding, fear, and misleading or inaccurate information can be the biggest source of stigma.
  • Be conscious of language. It matters how mental health conditions are described. See the person, not the condition.
  • Encourage equality between physical and mental illness. Would you think differently of a person living with a heart condition or cancer?
  • Show compassion for those with mental illness. Kindness always matters. Be a role model for all to see and follow.
  • Choose empowerment over shame. Everyone has agency of their life and story. Strive to refuse to let others dictate how you view yourself. You are not your illness.
  • Be honest about treatment. Privacy matters. But keep in mind that a person typically does not feel judged when they say they have an appointment with their primary care doctor. Build a similar attitude about seeing a therapist or psychiatrist.
  • Let the media know when they’re being stigmatizing. Share constructive feedback if stories about mental illness are presented with stigmatizing language or misleading and inaccurate information. 
  • Don’t harbor self-stigma. Fight stigma by not having stigma toward yourself. Be kind to yourself. You are capable. You are not alone. Seek support.

Millions of people are living with mental illness. Every one of them has dignity and deserves to live a meaningful life. It is important to acknowledge that stigma exists. By fighting stigma, we create a more accepting world where it’s easier to get help.

UPMC Health Plan resources

UPMC Health Plan can support you or a loved one on the journey to better mental and behavioral health. To learn more about our coverage and resources, visit:


(1) Rossler, W. “The Stigma of Mental Disorders: A Millenia Long History of Social Exclusion and Prejudices.” EMBO Report 2016. 17(9); 1250-1253.

(2) Corrigan, Patrick W. and Rao, Deepa. “On the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness: Stages, Disclosure, and Strategies for Change.” Can J Psychiatry. 2012 Aug; 57(8): 464–469.

(3) “About Mental Health”.  National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Population Health. June 28, 2021

(4) Krans, Brian.  “Stigma is Still a Major Hurdle in Getting People the Mental Health Care They Need.  Healthline. Updated Oct. 20, 2018.

(5) Greenstein, L. “9 Ways to Help Fight Mental Health Stigma.” NAMI Blog. Oct. 11, 2017.