When we understand mental illness, we reduce its stigma

Most people either know someone with a mental illness or experience one themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 will experience a mental illness in a given year.

Even though mental illnesses are common, many individuals avoid or delay seeking treatment due to the stigma and perceived shame in getting help.1


How is a mental illness defined?


Mental illness is a broad term defined as a health condition involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior — or any combination of these. It’s also often associated with distress or difficulty functioning in social, work, or family activities.2 Some examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Mental illnesses are varied and significantly different from one another, just like physical illnesses.


How are mental illnesses diagnosed?


As with physical illnesses, there are common signs and symptoms that can indicate a mental illness. They include sudden social issues, problems at work or school, changes in sleeping and eating, drug abuse, and mood changes.

If an individual experiences any of these signs, they should consult their primary care physician to get a referral to a mental healthcare provider for an assessment and treatment plan. Treatments may include therapy, medication, or both.

Help is available


If you or someone you know is having thoughts or displaying signs of self-harm or suicide, call 988. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides an immediate connection to a crisis specialist or licensed clinician who listens closely, assesses the situation, and provides support.

Are people who experience mental illness more violent?


The correlation between mentally ill individuals and violence is a myth that has been debunked. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, as only 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to people living with a serious mental illness.3


How should we refer to individuals with mental illnesses?


When we treat individuals experiencing mental illnesses the same way we treat those experiencing physical illnesses, that can go a long way in helping to remove any stigma. For example, we refer to people experiencing cancer as “survivors” and “heroes.” We also tend to call individuals battling other serious physical illnesses “brave” and “strong.”

When we adopt a similar attitude toward those battling mental illnesses, we help reframe the experience much more positively for them.


How else can we help people with mental illness?


In addition to framing their experiences more positively, we can help those experiencing mental illness the same way we would with those experiencing physical illness: by being a good listener, helping the individual find treatment resources, talking with their family, and learning as much as possible about the illness.


How can people with mental illnesses help themselves?


If someone thinks they have a mental illness, the most important thing they can do is seek help. That can mean starting with their doctor, a community resource, a trusted family member, or a friend.

It’s also vital that individuals keep in mind that there’s no shame in taking care of themselves. The more they learn about their disorder and actions they can take, the more empowered they’ll feel.

People can and do recover from mental illnesses. By actively listening, providing support, and showing compassion, each of us can make a difference and help reduce mental illness stigma in our communities.


1 American Psychiatric Association: Stigma, Prejudice, and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness (accessed April 2023): psychiatry.org.
2 American Psychiatric Association: What Is Mental Illness? (accessed April 2023): psychiatry.org.
3 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Mental Health Myths and Facts (accessed April 2023): mentalhealth.gov.