Stigma, Shame And Mental Illness


Stigma and shame….Go Home!

There’s anger in our society about how ‘mental illness’ is perceived.

Mental illness, or so the argument goes, carries with it a nasty stigma.

The argument goes something like this:

“Should a person be ‘ashamed’ to see a doctor after slicing a tomato and severing a finger?”

“Should your friend, recently diagnosed with diabetes, be ‘afraid’ to accept insulin treatment, worried that her peers will think she’s a ‘lesser person” because of her diagnosis?

“Should a person with cancer be treated differently in the workplace?

Why, then (the argument continues) should a person suffering with anxiety or depression, or other genuine illnesses and medical problems – like any other – face shame and stigma?

I understand this argument. But what does it achieve? The continued focus on ‘shame’ merely exacerbates the stigma we’d like to see erased.

People who suffer with mental illness must take a stand. As others do with other illnesses. Many prominent people are beginning to speak out. I admire them. They are making a difference.

But. Those of us who are suffering privately are still ashamed of what we’re suffering from. Therefore, we can’t further our own cause. 

The stigma is ours to change. We who suffer have to be the spokespeople for depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses in their various forms, talk about them, open up the dialogue. We understand the illness, we live it, only we can explain it, and slowly alter how it’s perceived.

Let me be clear. Not all of us can shout from the rooftops about our experiences with anxiety and depression. We’re not well enough, or strong enough, or we don’t want to. But some of us can. And more of us must.

The label ‘mental illness” alone is harmful. It means nothing. It also implies too much…that those affected are “loony,” “nut cases,”  “freaks.” It is a broad brush that doesn’t properly explain the complexity of the problem.

Here’s my take on stigma and shame.

  • Stress overload, which so easily morphs into health problems that are more serious,  part of being human, part of being alive, part of being a member of this rushed, frantic, chaotic, competitive society we’re in, is a given for all of us.
  • When stress “overtakes,” as it can for many, it can and often does  morph into a serious mental health problem.
  • Individuals from family backgrounds where anxiety, depression and other related mental health issues exist can be fairly certain that other family members will be affected.

In other words: No one is immune from stress; no one is immune from family mental health histories, no one is immune from the manner in which an otherwise fully functioning individual can suddenly be overcome by a ‘mental health’ problem.

This is not about “us” and “them”  -  those who suffer from mental health issues, those who don’t.  Stress and its sinister cousins affect everyone. For some of us, it catapults out of control.

So what’s the ‘stigma’ really about then – being human? Mental illness is different than other illnesses because it is perceived as a malfiring of the brain. Rather than another body part. So what. Everyone has a brain, therefore; everyone has the capacity to suffer from mental health problems.

We are all human beings.

Are we ashamed to be human? Ashamed that we have brains? Why?

I’m not. Are you?


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 at 6:00 am and is filed under Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.


  1. March 8th, 2013 | Andrea Coulter (@WholiHealthCare) says:

    Great clear article Abby! You are so right that serious anxieties and depression needs to be looked at in a whole different perspective if we are going to help teach people how to hopefully prevent, if not overcome.

    Keep up the great work!


  2. April 9th, 2013 | abby says:

    Thank you Andrea. And thank you for all your wonderful work in the healing realm.

  3. June 7th, 2013 | Alice says:

    I’ll just sum it up to say I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.

    I am an aspiring blog writer, but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any suggestions for first-time blog writers?

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