Stick It to Stigma

NOV. 09, 2016

By Rob Marko-Franks


Despite massive leaps forward in understanding the biological underpinnings of mental illness, the way people affected by mental illness are treated hasn’t seen comparable improvements. People who live with mental illness are often ostracized and expected to simply change their thoughts and behavior. Too often, our society doesn’t recognize that these things are just out of a person’s control. Too often, we fail to offer those with mental health conditions the same concern and compassion we would show someone with a physical condition.

How can this be? Well, stigma­­—the stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination directed towards those living with mental illness—is very real and influential. When people without mental health conditions paint a broad idea of what mental illness looks like, they often create two distinct groups: “us” and “them,” “normal” and “abnormal.” Fear and a lack of education is what causes this reaction.

Many people are unaware of what causes mental illness and how it impacts people in varying degrees. This isn’t necessarily their fault as much as it is a failure in the education and health care systems. A lot of it also comes from society: The American notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” causes people to believe that any and all problems can be solved through grit and hard work. This is a closed-minded approach that fails to account for realistic expectations.

Those living with mental health conditions don’t want it any more than a person would want a broken leg. But focused thought and effort can’t make depression go away, just as focusing on healing won’t fix your shattered bone.

Stigma is unfortunately not a problem that we can eradicate overnight. We need to teach people that mental illness is a complicated and unique problem, that every case is different and treatments that work for one person won’t necessarily work for another. There is no panacea for the brain’s problems.

No matter how much we educate or try to normalize the experience of mental illness, stigma can and probably will persist. But maybe by stressing the similarities between physical conditions and mental conditions—discomfort, worry, struggle, pain—then maybe more people might realize that those with a mental health condition need just as much support and understanding as anyone else. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a good place to start.


Tell us how you stop stigma using #IStopStigmaBy. Write your response on a piece of paper or notebook. Share on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag to share with the NAMI community. Learn more by clicking here


Rob Marko-Franks is a former Advocacy & Public Policy intern at NAMI National in Arlington, VA. He is a student at Grinnell College interested in helping students and their families tackle the challenge of asking for help.


NOV, 17, 2016 02:17:01 PM
Roxanne Reeves
Love reading and sharing these blogs. Here's a thought about this one...
Healing of mental illness can and does happen. And stigma can and does go away...though connected, they are two different things. Mental illness is already "normalized" in that everyone experiences some form of it at some time (eg. stressed out over the election?). Stigma is perception of something everyone recognizes. And THAT can be changed, removed from an individual's thinking or even society's (eg. the rust belt flipped from voting for Obama to Trump in a few short years...change in political perceptions?)...Hope is...stigma of mental illness/health can change permanently (with a lot of hard work, of course.). And when we "shed" stigma and leave the margin, to enter into the place where everyone else is...that's a great thing, worth working for. Thank you all for work so hard to end stigma. rr/11/17/2016

NOV, 16, 2016 07:42:46 PM
Michele Garrison
I stop stigma by having the necessary conversations with extended family members and friends to let them know that I have learned to see my daughter as a person and not just her disease.

NOV, 16, 2016 12:20:51 PM
One Voice
As a person with mood disorders secondary to brain injury I've been able to bridge the physical vs mental gap by way of brain injury. It's easy to get people to understand that the brain, and areas critical to emotional regulation and decision making, can be physically damaged beyond repair. Once there it's pretty easy to get a person to concede that mental illness is a "real" thing beyond a person's control. I really encourage others to use brain injury as an example to make the conceptual connection between physical illness/injury and mental illness.

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