What is Stigma? Why is it a Problem?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), stigma is when someone, or even you yourself, views a person in a negative way just because they have a mental health condition or substance use issue. Some people describe stigma as a feeling of shame or judgement from someone else. Stigma can even come from an internal place, confusing feeling bad with being bad.

Navigating life with a mental health condition or substance use disorder can be tough, and the isolation, blame and secrecy that is often encouraged by stigma can create huge challenges to reaching out, getting needed support and living well. Learning how to avoid and address stigma are important for all of us, especially when you realize stigma’s effects:

  • People experiencing mental health conditions or substance use disorders often face rejection, bullying and discrimination. This can make their journey to recovery longer and more difficult.
  • Mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability across the United States.
  • Even though most people can be successfully treated, less than half of the adults in the U.S. who need services and treatment get the help they need.
  • The average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death of youth ages 15-24 and the tenth leading cause of death for all Americans.

Do You Have Stigma?

Take the Quiz

Stigma harms the 1 in 5 Americans affected by mental health conditions. It shames them into silence and prevents them from seeking help. Take the quiz at beatthestigma.org to be part of the cure.

Take the quiz

Take the Pledge

The StigmaFree campaign is NAMI’s effort to end stigma and create hope for those affected by mental illness. Through powerful words and actions, we can shift the social and systemic barriers for those living with mental health conditions.

Take the Pledge

Fighting Back Against Stigma

People report perceived stigma from healthcare providers, loved ones, and the general public. No matter the situation, no one likes to feel judged or devalued. In order to encourage people to reach out for help and get on the path to recovery, it is important to reduce the stigma surrounding their situation. Educational programs and modeling of non-stigmatizing behavior can help people provide nonjudgmental, empathic support.

Effective ways for individuals to help reduce stigma include:

  • Offering compassionate support.
  • Displaying kindness to people in vulnerable situations.
  • Listening while withholding judgment.
  • Seeing a person for who they are, not what drugs they use or mental illness they have.
  • Doing your research; learning about drug dependency and how it works and about mental illness.
  • Treating people with drug dependency or mental illness with dignity and respect.
  • Avoiding hurtful labels.
  • Replacing negative attitudes with evidence-based facts.
  • Speaking up when you see someone mistreated because of their mental illness or drug use.
  • Sharing your own stories of stigma.

Words Matter

Substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental illnesses are medical conditions, but the general public associates people with SUD, mental illness and other addictive disorders with poor choices and moral failings. As a result, many people who suffer from these disorders are not treated the same way as people with chronic physical health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes.

When talking or writing about substance use disorder and mental illness, the words used matter. Person-first language can help reduce stigma.

Words Matter to Reduce Stigma Worksheet

Words Hurt - Infographic on fighting discriminatory language