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Mental Health Problems and Stigma

Overview

If you have a mental health problem, you may worry about what other people will think of you. In many cases, no one can even tell if you are struggling with symptoms. But sometimes the fear that someone can tell is enough to cause concern. Mental health problems can include bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and schizophrenia.

You have a say in how others see you. The way you act and treat others can help influence people's attitudes toward you and toward mental health problems.

Stigma

People sometimes have negative views about things they don't understand, such as mental health problems. Some people may believe things about mental health problems that aren't true. Other people may have good intentions but still feel uncomfortable when they find out you have a mental health problem. This can make people treat you and your family differently. This is called stigma—when you feel judged by others because you have a personal quality, trait, or condition. Because of stigma, others may look down on you.

Stigma occurs when others:

  • Don't understand the mental health problem or think it's a laughing matter.
  • Don't realize that a mental health problem is an illness that can be treated.
  • Think that a mental health problem is "your own fault" or that you can "get over it."
  • Are afraid they might someday have a mental health problem themselves.
  • Are nervous around you.

You may feel shame or guilt about having a mental health problem. You may not want an employer or even your friends to know. This is called "self-stigma," and it can keep you from getting treatment or finding work.

Breaking the stigma

Respecting yourself is an important part of your recovery. Try to remember that there's nothing to feel ashamed of. The problem is with your brain, not with you. You can reach goals that are important to you even if you have a mental health problem.

Your attitude and actions can influence what others think. Be honest with people, and show them who you really are. When you help people understand your mental health problem, they are more likely to get past their negative views.

Here are some ways you can help others better understand mental health problems.

  • Let them know that your mental health problem is a medical problem that can be treated.
  • Talk about your recovery. This will help them understand the challenges you face.
  • Show them your strengths and talents. Don't let your mental health problem keep you from going after things you want to do.
  • Remember that "you are the message." You can show how you want to be treated by the way you act. Treating yourself with respect can set an example for everyone.
  • Accept that you may need breaks during activities. Your symptoms may make it harder to focus on things for a long time.
  • Work with your family and doctor to set goals you can reach. Let them know what changes you want to make in your life.

Work

For most people, work is an important part of their lives and identities. Having a job helps you feel better about yourself and your future. It gives you a chance to connect with others. Work also provides needed income, and it gives you a chance to learn and grow as a person.

Because of stigma about mental health problems, some employers may have concerns about hiring you. This can make it harder for you to get the job you want. Think about the benefits and harms of telling an employer if you have PTSD. If you need special accommodations, then you probably need to tell your employer. For example, if you need to leave in the middle of the day for an appointment. Ask for advice and support from your mental health care team. They can help you see the benefits or downsides of talking about your problem with an employer.

If you have a job already, you may feel stressed or nervous at work. Or you may be worn out or tired. Getting treatment for your symptoms will help improve your ability to work.

Most communities have resources, such as local job services, that can help you find a job and be successful at it. Community services include:

  • Job skills training. This includes help with preparing for interviews, preparing resumes, and learning other skills needed to find work.
  • Education about tax incentive programs. This may help you get extra money.
  • On-the-job training placement. This helps you get work experience.

Getting help

Many cities have a local job service, employment office, or state health and welfare office. These organizations can help you get work or find a place to live. You can find information about these services in the phone book or on the Internet.

Your doctor or a local church also may be able to connect you with services that can help. Your doctor may refer you to a social worker or case manager who can help you find a place to live. You may be able to find the training and support you need to get and keep a job. You may also find programs through your mental health care team.

Substance abuse, which is common with some mental health problems, may make your life harder. If you have this problem, talk to your doctor about getting drug or alcohol treatment.

If you sometimes lose your temper or harm others, talk with people about it. Your health care team and family can help you. Drug and alcohol use also may lead to actions that can harm you or others and/or result in jail time, so avoid them. If you have a drug or alcohol problem, get help.

If you or your loved one is in jail and has a mental health problem, make sure the staff members know about the problem. They may have services that can help. Support also may be available when you or your loved one is released from jail.

People with mental health problems also are more likely to be victims of crime. Ask a trusted family member, friend, or health professional to help you if you are a victim of a crime.

Legal concerns

People with mental health problems have the same rights as other citizens. For example, you have the right to vote and to take part in legal agreements, such as marriage, divorce, and business ventures. Most states and many health care groups have a bill of rights for people with mental health problems. These rights include the right to privacy (or confidentiality) with respect to your illness and treatment plan and the right to treatment that places the fewest possible restrictions on your lifestyle.

People with mental health problems sometimes have symptoms that make decision making hard. It's good to prepare legal documents to help in case this happens. It's best to do this when you have few or no symptoms.

  • An advance directive tells your wishes for treatment when you have severe symptoms.
  • A durable power of attorney for health care says who will be in charge of making decisions when you are not able to make them for yourself. This document can be very helpful if your symptoms become so bad that you need someone you trust to make treatment decisions for you.
  • A power of attorney lets you choose someone to help you deal with money if your symptoms keep you from doing this on your own. Find someone you trust to co-sign financial documents, such as credit card applications or mortgages, to protect yourself financially while you are having symptoms.

For more information, see the topic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Jessica Hamblen, PhD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Last Revised January 9, 2013

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