Understanding Mental Health

Stigma and Mental Health

On this page

What is stigma? 

Stigma refers to the disapproval of, or discrimination against something or someone, due to particular characteristics that they hold.

For many individuals with a mental health problem, stigma can often surround the struggles that they may be going through. An example of a stigma surrounding mental health, is the view that depressed people might be ‘crazy’, ‘incompetent’ or ‘weak’.

Why is mental illness surrounded by stigma?

Three main components surround the stigmatisation of mental health problems: 

  • Lack of knowledge: Such as ignorance or misinformation about a subject, e.g. “People with depression are dangerous”
  • Attitudes: Such as prejudice, which can lead to emotional reactions such as, “Because they’re dangerous, I fear them”
  • Behavioural problems: Such as discrimination, e.g. “Because they’re dangerous, I will avoid them”


A person with a mental illness may recognise and agree with the stigma surrounding their condition, this is known as self-stigma. Self-stigma can result in the individual inflicting negative attitudes and behaviours towards themselves. 

This can have detrimental effects on individual’s self-esteem and self-confidence, and potentially lead to not seeking treatment, withdrawing from society, substance abuse, or even suicide. 

Why is stigma harmful?

There are many reasons why stigma can be harmful for those living with a mental illness. Stigma can:

  • Deter people from seeking treatment
  • Worsen someone’s mental health or ability to recover
  • Cause discrimination at work or school, social exclusion, bullying or violence
  • Lead to lack of support and empathy for people with mental illnesses
  • Affect families of those living with a mental illness, which can lead to a lack of disclosure and support
  • Create a negative image of mental health professionals and treatment

How can we challenge this stigma?

  • Promote and adopt mental health treatment if it is needed
  • Watch out for any stigma that you yourself may have. Take the time to evaluate attitudes based on whether they are constructive and factual, or harmful and misinformed
  • Remember that mental illness is normal and can take on many different forms. When you meet someone with mental illness, don’t judge, label or discriminate against them. Treat them with respect and dignity.
  • Learn the facts about mental illnesses. This will equip you to provide accurate information to others in conversations and assist in countering misinformation that others may believe.
  • Filter what others say. Whenever you hear somebody’s beliefs and opinions about something, ask yourself: “Is this based on scientific or medical knowledge, or is it based on rumours and prejudice?"

Better Health Channel. (2015). Stigma, discrimination and mental illness. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/servicesandsupport/stigma-discrimination-and-mental-illness

Beyond Blue. (2015). Beyondblue information paper: stigma and discrimination associated with depression and anxiety [PDF file]. https://www.beyondblue.org.au/docs/default-source/policy-submissions/stigma-and-discrimination-associated-with-depression-and-anxiety.pdf

Carr, V., & Halpin, S. (2002). Stigma and discrimination [PDF file]. https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/724D498F68ABC0ACCA257BF0001939A7/$File/Stigma.pdf

Government of Western Australia. (2009). Stigma, discrimination and mental illness. Western Australia Department of Health. http://www.health.wa.gov.au/docreg/Education/Population/Health_Problems/Mental_Illness/Mentalhealth_stigma_fact.pdf

Health Direct Australia. (2017). Mental Illness Stigma. Sydney, NSW: Australian Government Department of Health. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/stigma

Mental Health Foundation. (2015). Stigma and discrimination. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stigma-and-discrimination

SANE Australia. (2019). Reducing stigma. https://www.sane.org/information-stories/facts-and-guides/reducing-stigma#what-harm-does-stigma-do

See Change. (2017). What is stigma? A guide to understanding mental health stigma. Ireland: The National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership. https://seechange.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/See-Change-What-is-Stigma-A5-brochure-HR.pdf

Back to top