Mental Health Stigma

Definition of stigma in mental health

The term stigma has its origins in ancient times when slaves were marked with a “stigma”. This term was then used to mean any different types of mark of shame or disgrace. In modern times, it has become more associated with mental health and those who suffer from poor mental health in particular. Mental illness has become a real stigma in today’s society.

Many different modern types of expression have been used, frequently, by newspaper media in particular, that stigmatize those with psychiatric disorders: “mad axe-man”, “lunatic”, “psycho” “crazy” with the different terms and label types such as mad, lunatic and psycho being transferred into every day conversation to then be taken to mean or depict the behavior of someone who commits an act of violence or acts in a dangerous and/or irresponsible manner.

Certain types of anti-social behavior have become a label for mental illness and those with poor mental health. The general public automatically associate someone with a mental health illness with the newspaper attention grabbing headlines which can then mean that if you have a mental illness you are likely to be branded and have to endure stigmatization as a consequence.

The stigma of having a mental health illness seriously impairs the ability to seek help for fear of the shame that has become associated with the condition. For example, stigmatization is quite prevalent in many professional occupations where sufferers keep their mental health condition a secret, particularly if they suffer from Schizophrenia.Unfortunately, stigmatization comes in many different types of expression.

Another form of stigma is to call someone by their health condition – for example a “schizophrenic”. This is putting a label on someone as a person, when, in actual fact, it is the person who is suffering from the condition – this stigma process by the media and people who do not have a full understanding of mental health results in seeing the person AS the illness, not a person with an illness.

As an organization, we like to present a different approach. For example, our training programs are under the name of “Plymouth Recovery College” and people with low self esteem, low self confidence, mostly as a result of trauma and/or diagnosis of mental health, self refer and often contact us by telephone, with the comment “Oh, a college, that is what “normal” people do isn’t it”. In this way, being different in the way we approach and market our training programs, we try to remove all stigmatization from our courses.

So, what does it all mean – what are the effects of stigma and what else can we do to challenge it?

If you suffer from a physical ailment, you can go to a doctor or hospital, get treated and afterwards go on with your life, but if you have a psychological ailment, then the reality is that after treatment or therapy, you are obliged, in several every day circumstances, to declare if you have had a mental health problem. This is very discriminatory and there are now campaigns set up to challenge stigma wherever it raises its ugly head. One such campaign is Time To Change

The Time To Change web pages can give you more information as to the meaning of stigmatization and points to the fact that 1 in 4 of us will be affected by mental illness in any one year.

It’s time to stop the shame and embarrassment surrounding mental health – as Ruby Wax puts it: what is so funny about mental illness? In this video Ruby Wax tells about her own lived experience

Plymouth Mind (UK) has coordinated a number of projects to address stigma – one such project is called “A Positive Journey” – you can find out more about this project at

This project created positive images – stories about what people can do, rather than focusing on what they cannot do. The stories show that there is life beyond disadvantage and stigma.