In mental health: Just what is stigma?


Stigma often stands in the way of people benefitting from treatment.

This is a common refrain in the behavioral health field when pondering the significant number of people who sidestep an opportunity for professionally recommended treatment.

When a person doesn’t opt into treatment for some reason, stigma quickly comes to mind. Could it be something else? Of course, there could be other contributing reasons – such as ability to pay and time away from work or family. But let’s address the word “stigma” for what it is.

One definition of stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a circumstance, quality or person. Nobody wants the weight of a “mark of disgrace.” Speaking to this definition, it would be natural to steer clear of certain situations, such as breaking the law; exhibiting a certain quality, such as greed; or interacting with someone who is known to be dishonest. It follows that some people rebuff mental health treatment for fear of being judged unfairly or labeled.

With this definition it’s easy to see why everyone wants to separate stigma from mental health care. Just as there is no stigma to check into a hospital and obtain treatment for a broken leg, stepping into a mental health center for treatment should be on the same level. Physical injuries and mental health illnesses are treatable, and we know that recovery is possible for both.

Considering the damages of stigma

Information from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website notes stigma causes people to feel ashamed of something that is out of their control. It prevents them from seeking the help they need. For example, a friend might tell them that they are just going through a phase, and it is something they could control if they really tried.  Or to “just snap out of it!”

For many people who are already carrying a heavy burden, stigma adds to their pain. And what is doubly sad is the fact that the damage of the stigma they feel can be deepened when they are illegally discriminated against as well, such eliminated from a job opportunity.

What can we do?

When a behavioral health care professional is asked “what is stigma?” a spirited response might be “It’s something we should fight!” With that in mind, NAMI suggests several ways to fight stigma, so let’s consider a few:

  • Integration: As mentioned earlier, it helps to encourage equality between physical and mental illness. Recognizing that mental illness is a disease is the right perspective. We certainly wouldn’t discount the pain and discomfort of someone with cancer or an injured back.
  • Compassion: Be caring. Be present and thoughtful for those with a mental illness. Show compassion across the board to anyone who is suffering.
  • Communication and labels: Be aware of language. Separate the person from the illness. For example, Sara is recovering from a substance abuse disorder, rather than Sara is a stoner or Sara is an alcoholic. Watch this new video on labels: Liftthelabel.
  • Openness: Talk openly about mental health. Talk openly in families or social groups about mental health and how to be in overall good health. There may be a family story about a relative who overcame clinical depression. This can help as the same challenge could arise for other family members. Remember to include the value of self-care – all those healthful habits that are good for physical and mental health.

We are here to help

At Community Reach Center, we are always looking for ways to educate everyone about mental health in a dedicated effort to combat stigma. We have a full continuum of treatment options. We practice Feedback Informed Treatment (FIT), which raises the level of communication between consumers and clinicians. To learn more about Community Reach Center, a nonprofit mental health center, visit or call 303-853-3500. We have centers in the northside Denver metro area, including the cities of Thornton, Westminster, Northglenn, Commerce City, Brighton and Broomfield. Our Behavioral Health Urgent Care (BHUC) center, 2551 W. 84th Ave., in Westminster is open 24 hours.