Mental health stigma and getting to mental wellness

people with brain illustration

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 75% of individuals who face mental health challenges also deal with additional difficulties resulting from the accompanying social stigma. Fear, shame and guilt can create barriers to seeking help.

People dealing with various stressors in their lives that may threaten mental health are often too afraid to speak up and share their struggles. They are concerned such disclosures could negatively impact social and professional relationships.

Experts say stigma often comes from a general lack of understanding and/or fear and can be amplified through misleading media references, cultural stereotypes and prejudices.

Joseph Beck, MD, a psychiatrist with the UChicago Medicine Medical Group, explains what stigma around mental health can look like, and how it can be harmful to those who need help.

“The biggest mistake that leads to stigma is the assumption that psychiatric symptoms are due to some moral failing," said Beck. "Because the brain is also the mind, we sometimes fail to realize that it’s an organ too and can have dysfunction like any other organ.”

Just like any other part of the body, he said, the brain can suffer an illness and needs to be treated like other biological systems. “Just as how diabetes or hypertension can be treated with biologics and behavioral modifications, there are biological and behavioral strategies that can help you obtain mental wellness.”

Stigma-driven fear of being labeled inappropriately can lead individuals to believe that they should just accept their symptoms, shoulder them on their own or simply ignore them. According to Beck, not taking action to better your mental health can worsen the situation by increasing the frequency and severity of challenging episodes.

Beck said educating the population on the topic of mental health and mental illnesses is the primary tool to help eradicate stigma around mental health. This would include accessing evidence-based resources on what mental health is, understanding stressors that can negatively impact someone’s mental health and adopting a supportive attitude toward those who need help.

Marsha Sumner, Director for Spiritual Care at UChicago Medicine, believes that adopting a high sense of self-awareness, having the willingness to seek help and not shying away from tough conversations also can help with ending stigma surrounding mental health. Heightened self-awareness is the ability to recognize how you feel at your best, and what it feels and looks like when stressors begin to threaten your mental wellbeing.

“And then there’s also the other side to it: to be aware that those around us might be struggling. Your colleagues, your family and friends. When you operate with a spirit of compassion for those you’re connected with, that too can help,” Sumner explained.

There are signs that may indicate a need to seek professional help for yourself or someone you know. They include changes in eating habits, sleep patterns and the onset of intense emotions, such as anxiety and despair.

In seeking help, Beck emphasizes a combined treatment approach that consists of not only medication but also therapy and other life adjustments. “The evidence is that therapy, with medication, as well as making sure you maintain healthy relationships with others and yourself, can lead to effective outcomes. It needs to be a complete package,” he said.

With this line of care, individuals not only can position themselves to emerge from the current mental health challenge but also equip themselves to handle future obstacles.

In moving through a mental health challenge, Rev. Christopher Elderkin, Chaplain with UChicago Medicine, recommends starting at a place of honesty: Ask yourself how you really feel in the moment, rather than how you would like to feel.

“How do you want your day-to-day to feel? Identify the barriers that might get in the way. Think of yourself as someone you love and want to nourish and nurture, and as someone that deserves to feel well,” the revered said. This frame of thinking can be helpful for anyone in general, but can be especially beneficial for individuals moving through challenging situations.

In addition to the combined treatment approach, some of the adjustments Beck recommends for those experiencing mental health challenges include:

  • Getting proper sleep
  • Incorporating exercise
  • Maintaining healthy social relationships
  • Monitoring the usage of unhealthy mechanisms such as alcohol
  • Getting into the habit of goal setting (short term and long term goals)
  • Practicing meditation or yoga

Struggling with your mental health is not a sign of weakness. Learning to accept your mental health challenges and having the self-awareness to seek help and support are key not only to making progress toward wellness for yourself but also in educating others and eradicating stigma surrounding mental health.

Joseph Beck

Joseph Beck, MD

Psychiatrist Joseph Beck, MD, is executive medical director for behavioral health at UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital.

See Dr. Beck's physician profile