Depression: stigma and mental health

Stigma happens when someone is labelled in a way that hurts their standing in the community, and encourages people to consider them as less than a whole person. Stigma is a result of ignorance: people tend to fear what they do not understand. Stigma can lead to hurt, rejection and prejudice against people who are labelled. People with mental health problems are labelled with a variety of names (e.g. as lunatics, nutters, bonkers, weak, violent, mad, failures). Many people we talked to felt shame about their mental health problems, which some of their families also felt. Some tried to overcome this shame.

People showed enormous courage in coping with depression and overcoming stigma and talked about how they “walked through the minefield of stigma”, while trying to feel OK about themselves. For instance, many tried to pass as 'normal' and as if they were coping. Some avoided getting a diagnosis, or wondered if they should declare their depression to potential employers, aware that a history of mental illness would make it harder to get a job. Some people argued that the effectiveness of their medication proved that the problem was with brain chemistry, was no-one's 'fault' and therefore should not be stigmatised.

As people came to better accept themselves, they sometimes took a more active approach to tackling stigma. Telling a few trusted individuals is often a first step. Prejudice could not always be avoided and people sometimes ended up feeling hurt and angry at assumptions that people with mental health problems are violent, dangerous or drug addicts.

Some people challenge other people's views on mental health very directly or even make personal complaints to the media about stereotyped portrayals of mental illness. And things are slowly changing. One man noted with relief the community outrage that occurred when a tabloid newspaper depicted Frank Bruno (the celebrity boxer) as “bonkers”. However, for another man, the Bruno episode exposed racial stereotypes on top of stigma. Others were encouraged by the way celebrities were more and more open about their depression. One man spoke positively about an anti-discrimination campaign that was run in his community, and another woman encouraged fellow users to tackle stigma directly in the media.

Last reviewed September 2017.


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