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Stigma and mental illness

20 March, 2020
A woman

Understanding mental health stigma

Anyone can experience mental illness – it doesn’t discriminate by age, gender, income level, or race. In fact, according the Queensland Government, an estimated 45% of all Australians will experience a mental illness at some stage of their lives. However, according to the Black Dog Institute, only 54% of those experiencing an illness will seek treatment for their condition. People may be reluctant to seek treatment because they feel others will treat them differently or judge them.

According to the Better Health Channel, mental illness stigma is when someone sees you in a negative way because of your mental health condition. Mental illness discrimination is when someone treats you in a negative way because of your illness.

What is mental illness?

A mental illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood, and may affect someone’s ability to function in everyday life. It refers to a wide range of mental health conditions including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • schizophrenia
  • bipolar disorder
  • eating disorders
  • addictive behaviours

Many people living with poor mental health report that the stigma and discrimination they receive from friends, family, colleagues, and the community can be more disabling than the mental illness itself. 

Someone experiencing mental health stigma can experience:

  • fewer job opportunities
  • fewer housing or accommodation options
  • discrimination in the workplace
  • exclusion from family or friend groups
  • bullying, shame, humiliation

How you can help others

If you know someone with a mental illness, here are a few things you can do to help.

  1. Practice empathy and self-educate

    A lack of empathy is the biggest hurdle many people with mental illness face. Take the time to listen and try to understand where the person is coming from. Try to see the person first and the illness second and try to educate yourself about their condition.

  2. Be careful with your words

    Speak with dignity and respect and choose your words carefully. Use considerate language and emphasise abilities instead of limitations. For more information, read about supporting someone with a mental health issue at Healthdirect Australia.

  3. Speak up

    If you hear someone expressing a negative attitude about mental illness, always consider your own safety first, but don’t be afraid to speak out against it. Use your knowledge on mental illness to inform others. Their opinion may come from an incorrect belief that could be easily changed with the right information.

  4. Help raise awareness

    As well as speaking out against discriminating views, speak openly about mental health policies and programs, and lend your support when you can. Foster a healthy workplace environment where colleagues feel supported.

  5. Look after your own mental health

    Don’t let stigma create self-doubt and shame in your own mind, and be proactive in seeking treatment if you think you might need it. Understand that mental illness is not a sign of weakness.

  6. Report mental health stigma

    If you notice that a media item is stigmatising mental illness, you can report it at SANE Australia. They have a StigmaWatch program that allows you to submit a report about a specific media item.

If you’re experiencing stigma

If you’re experiencing mental health stigma, the Better Health Channel outlines the following ways to help you deal with it.

  1. Don’t believe it

    Try not to let other people’s ignorance change the way you think about yourself or your illness.

  2. Don’t isolate yourself

    If you feel you’re experiencing stigma, you may want to hide away, but it’s best to reach out to family and friends you trust.

  3. Connect with others in a similar position

    Joining a mental health support group can be a great way to create connection with others and reduce feelings of isolation.

  4. You are not your illness

    Try not to define yourself by your health condition. Just like you are not a physical illness, you are also not a a mental illness.

  5. Get the mental health treatment you need

    Try not to let stigma stop you from seeking the professional help you need to help manage your condition. Waiting to access help may mean your condition could get worse.

Where to get help

Get help now

If you or someone close to you needs help now, there are phonelines and websites available:

Seeing your GP

Your GP can assess you, provide a treatment plan which may include medication, and refer you to a mental health specialist if necessary. A GP can create a mental health plan for you, which means Medicare subsidises up to 10 sessions with a mental health professional.

More information

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.

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