Mental health stigma can have a huge impact on an individual’s quality of life. Unfortunately, instead of being seen as another human being, those who suffer from mental illness can be defined by their illness. This stereotyping leads to social stigma and discrimination from others and can cause feelings of shame and distress within the individual. For people with severe mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, this is especially true. But regardless of severity, people with mental illness struggle with the limitations of their disorder which affects their health and wellbeing. It’s time to change that.
Here are three consequences of the stigma surrounding mental illness and how we can work together to combat these issues.
Mental health stigmas may prevent individuals from seeking or receiving adequate treatment.
Stigma and discrimination affect both an individual’s willingness to seek adequate mental health services and their ability to access it.
Let’s say an individual with mood disorders has a great deal of self-stigma. This might cause the individual to isolate themselves from friends, family and their community to avoid socializing. In turn, this could lead to depression. Fearing further social interactions, they choose to not seek medical attention, ultimately worsening their health and well-being.
Mental health stigmas can also limit access to treatment. For instance, a family member may not understand the severity of the illness and discourage treatment or refuse to pay for services. Similarly, employers with little knowledge of mental health disorders may not grant someone the flexible schedule needed to receive treatment for their symptoms. These problems can make it seem impossible for a person with mental illness to access the medical assistance they need.
To help overcome these types of stigma, it’s important that we show support and treat people suffering with respect. When we express compassion and empathy for others, it helps to alleviate much of the self-stigma they feel. If people with disorders feel empowered to speak openly about their conditions, we can gain a better understanding of their exact needs and expand their access to care.
Mental health stigma can increase homelessness and unemployment.
At least 25 percent of homeless individuals have a serious mental illness. Unfortunately, the two often go hand-in-hand. Mental illnesses may lead to cognitive and behavioral problems that make it difficult to find a stable job. An employer may assume an individual with a gap in employment is not a diligent employee. But, in reality, the gap could be due to a medical leave of absence. Perhaps they were homeless during this time and therefore didn’t have access to clean clothes, which negatively affected an employer’s perception of them during interviews. Without a job (and thus, income), individuals with mental disorders are more likely to be homeless than the general population.
Now, not only are individuals battling mental health challenges, they don’t have a network of support or a safe living situation. Access to treatment becomes even more difficult due to a lack of insurance. The individual’s illness worsens. And on and on the cycle of mental illness and homelessness goes. Less than half of Americans with disabilities are employed, and that number diminishes even further if they are also homeless.
Homelessness, cognitive impairments, and certain behaviors associated with mental illness often challenge social norms. And by nature, humans fear what we don’t understand. By educating the general public about mental illness, we can raise awareness and help others understand the nature of these diseases.
We must talk about mental health to remove the fear and misconceptions. Only then can we treat the human being, not just the disease.
Mental health stigma can lead to ineffective and damaging public policy.
Public mental health stigmas can dramatically impact public policy. Rather than using evidence-based practices in reducing stigma for people suffering from mental illness, fear can lead to further discrimination at the public-policy level. Most obviously, negative attitudes toward mental illness may lead to cuts in funding for sufficient care and health services. Lack of understanding can also lead to advocacy for ineffective treatments.
But mental health stigma does not just impact policies. False beliefs and assumptions about mental illness have a large impact on how laws are written. The justice system incarcerates nearly two million people with mental illness each year instead of providing treatment. Instead of incarcerating an individual with substance abuse problems, we could help him or her get into a treatment program. Instead of placing a homeless person with a disorder like schizophrenia in the justice system, we should help find them find a mental health professional that specializes in chronic and severe disorders.
To dispel the fear about those with mental illness, it’s critical that government entities provide a positive framework for the public to follow.
Tackling Stigma Through Technology
For mental health professionals, tracking how their mental health programs are performing is essential. If a program and its participants are performing well and improving over time, this can have large positive implications. Perhaps the nonprofit can use its successful program to advocate for better public policy and more government-funded mental health programs.
Using case management software to track and analyze program and participant data enables two actions. First, the software allows nonprofits to objectively view how each individual participant is performing. Using that analysis, the staff can tailor services to meet his or her needs.
Second, case management software also allows organizations to do this on a wider scale. Meaning, nonprofits can use data-driven insights to tweak and perfect programs to give participants the greatest chance of success. In this way, technology has the power to influence the trajectory of mental illness.
Reducing mental health stigma starts with understanding, compassion, and leads to action. Only then can we protect those who are vulnerable in society.
We all have an opportunity to be a mental health advocate. To be part of the conversation is to be an active part of the solution.