Let’s Cure the Social Virus Known as Stigma

MAY. 02, 2018

By Mary Giliberti, J.D.


If you were dealing with an illness that made everyday life a constant struggle, would you ask for help—or stay silent?

The answer seems so simple. Yet for the 60 million Americans living with mental health conditions and their loved ones, this question reflects a very real dilemma. Virtually every day, they experience biases that make it hard for them to trust anyone with the truth about their lives and find the caring, integrated support they need.

They hear disparaging things people say in casual conversation about those they dismiss as “crazy” or “mentally defective.”

They notice how often mental illness is described as a character flaw, something that sufferers could readily fix if they would just “snap out of it.”

They may hear harsh whispers in the workplace when a colleague reveals she’s dealing with depression or anxiety or shudder when a friend says that someone she knows must be “mentally ill” to believe what she believes.

These are just a few examples of how stigma can infect our thinking, our actions and our collective response to those with mental health conditions. This May, during Mental Health Month, NAMI is taking powerful aim at these issues through our #CureStigma campaign.

#CureStigma reflects our view that stigma is a social virus. A virus that spreads when we reinforce the negative attitudes that shame and isolate those with mental health conditions.

Often, we’re unaware of what we’re doing when we pass stigma along. Our words and actions come from everything we’ve heard about mental illness from childhood on. But we need to realize that stigma hurts people. It attacks their humanity, their pride and their potential. At its worst, it causes us to devalue people, denying them the care and attention they would receive if they were dealing with any other medical issue. Stigma has the power to damage lives—and take lives.

These harsh realities may frustrate and anger us, especially when they create painful barriers for the people we love and care about. But in a time when our society is more focused than ever on ending bias in all its harmful forms, we see real reasons for hope. #CureStigma is based on the belief that mindful action and open conversation can stop this virus in its tracks.

Our new campaign builds on NAMI’s successful #StigmaFree initiative. It begins with public service announcements by NAMI ambassadors, inviting all of us to take a brief online quiz that tests our thinking for stigmatizing beliefs. Everyone who takes the quiz will receive a custom stigma-fighting pledge to share via social media.

After taking the pledge, participants will get a pack of emojis they can use in text messages and other digital communications. These warm, expressive messages are a great way to show understanding and support for those with mental health conditions.

I hope you will head over to CureStigma.org to check out the campaign and share it with your friends, neighbors, family members and colleagues. I especially hope you won’t be afraid to take the quiz yourself.

Because you’re reading this blog, I know you care deeply about the well-being of those with mental health conditions. As a committed ally, you may not think of yourself as a carrier of the stigma virus. But since stigma is all around us—interwoven with our society’s thinking, actions, laws and institutions—we may suffer from its effects more than we realize. Even the most devoted advocate can have self-stigmatizing thoughts from time to time.

This is why #CureStigma matters so much. This campaign will give you new ways to think about stigma’s impact on your own life while engaging others who may need help getting past their own biases. When you share the emojis, you will be passing along the kindness and support that are stigma’s most powerful antidote.

Old beliefs die hard. There’s no doubt about it. But, as we’ve proven over and over again, our voices and actions can inspire healthful change. Together, we can be the compassionate cure that ends this virus for good.


Mary Giliberti is CEO of NAMI.


SEP, 07, 2018 09:04:08 PM
I've have social anxiety very bad, panic attacks , depression and sleep disorders... All of this since I was a child.... Back then I couldn't go to school because of it... No one knew what was wrong..... It was horrible... And I cried ALOT... So I missed a lot of school and had 1 friend.... As I got older I sought help for myself... I was out of my dark, scary place..... If people would be watchful of what they say to another.... You don't know what that person is dealing with.... It doesn't help a person to be criticized. Just my thoughts, Thank you

JUL, 16, 2018 07:43:56 PM
Stella Grenoble
Stigma begins when we permit psychiatry to fix one of their many labels upon us.

JUN, 21, 2018 11:34:02 PM
NAMI means so much to me. I attend NAMI at the Hope Center in Boston and find that its a great place to make connections. I am glad there is a place where those with mental health can meet others and share their lives. It is very good to connect and hear how others survive with these types of problems.

MAY, 19, 2018 09:25:44 PM
Melanie Butterworth
I agree with the posts above, especially regarding the language we use to describe what is happening to us. Lately, I have seen a lot of places use the term "behavioral health" and I disagree with it because it increases stigma. People say we are responsible for our behavior, but with these illnesses, at times, it is impossible. "Behavioral health" implies we have control which is not always the case. I vote for brain disorder or brain health disorder.

MAY, 03, 2018 04:03:07 AM
William Romine Jr
Sources of stigma:
1] It is due to a character flaw and not as it is [in reality] as a biochemical disorder of the brain.
2] There is no evolutionary reason for the genes underlying mental illness [wrong]; reasons exist, even if we do not know [at present] what these factors are [removes mental illness from eugenics considerations]. Population genetic analysis proves that something is evolutionarily screening for the genes underlying the illnesses.

MAY, 02, 2018 10:04:56 PM
Sue Schwedler
I wish we could change the terminology and call it what it is - brain health/disorder.

The term mental implies emotion and intellect. Part of stigma is the implication that the disorder has something to do with the mind. While these may be affected, it is the brain that has the disorder

The phyisical disorder is in the brain. The terms brain health and brain disorder seems like it would be a more accurate medical term.

MAY, 02, 2018 06:14:57 PM
Vanna Harness
I do feel very isolated and want local help to better my life for my kids and myself

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.