Psychiatric Labeling

17th October 2023

Stigma is a serious issue in mental health, and there are many professional organizations who are trying to end stick in the world of mental health disorders. Because many respected celebrities have "come out of the closet," as it word, going public with mental health disorders, this has helped to end a certain amount of stigma associated with some mental health disorders.

Mayo Clinic states about stigma of mental illness, that "Stigma is a very real problem for people who have a mental [health disorder]," adding,

"Stigma is when someone judges you based on a personal trait. Unfortunately, this is a common experience for people who have a mental health condition. Stigma may be obvious and direct, such as someone making a negative remark about your mental illness or your treatment. Or it may be subtle, such as someone assuming you could be unstable, violent or dangerous because you have a mental health condition. You may even judge yourself."

Some of the ways that stigma can manifest itself and its effects are:

1. Lack of understanding on the part of family and those close to you.

A lack of understanding or compassion, which might be the result of loosing patience with the sufferer, or simply a lack of insight into the situation or misinformation, can contribute to abusive or unkind words directed at the person with the mental health disorder. It can also manifest itself more subtly if a family member takes a conciliatory approach, or treats the sufferer as inept or unable to make his or her own decisions.

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2. Self doubt and Loss of Self-autonomy

The assignment of a psychiatric label can cause you to loose confidence in yourself. In its most extreme form, stigma can cause a person to withdraw, or to develop, what Aric Sigman describes in another context, "learned helplessness". Thrown into a situation where a great deal of your life is being decided for you, especially medical decisions, and where you might find yourself legally "disabled" for a mental health disorder, collecting a disability check or social security, the client loses a good measure of self-autonomy. Being assigned a psychiatric label can pull the rug out from under your feet, take the wind out of your sails, and because the label tends to be permanent, there can be a tendency towards a loss of productivity in life.

We should call to mind that there are many examples of highly productive members of society in respected positions of responsibility who have had and who presently have, serious mental health disorders, but who continue to function productively. Mayo Clinic puts it, "The belief that you will never be able to succeed at certain challenges or that you can't improve your situation".

3. Discrimination at work

Some employers hesitate to hire anyone who has a mental health disorder, and if an employer finds out you have a mental health disorder, there can be subtle consequences in the form of discrimination at work.

4. Embarrassment at school or among friends

This can be especially true for children and teens. While many children and teens show remarkable understanding and compassion towards other students at school who have some psychiatric or neurological disorder, some can be cruel in their words, which is the order of the for some teens, irrespective of any out-of-the-ordinary issues. Children and teens, then, can be embarrassed to tell others that they have any type of disorder which makes them "different" to other students.

Angela Greatley, acting chief executive of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health in the United Kingdom states,"Having a mental health problem does not in itself prevent a person from having a home, a job or an education.

"It is only because people with mental health problems are sidelined by others in our society that they so often face a downward spiral of ill health, poverty and isolation.

Why Stigma of Mental Illness?

One reason for stigma of mental illness is because of stereotypes of "crazy" and "deranged" people that is reinforced through the entertainment media. Disney for example, is accused of fostering discrimination against the mentally ill through children's cartoon movies which project those with mentally ill as "crazy," "lunatics" and dangerous madmen in a large percentage of its children's movies.

Many adult movies similarly present those who are mentally ill in similar negative stereotypes. Lack of accurate information, understanding or insight also contributes to stigma.

Additionally, the adage, "lock the door and throw away the key" still resonates in the minds of many. Going to the "nut house" and never coming back, is always an option, so the "insane asylum" view of psychiatric treatment still resonates in the mind of many.

Based on such stereotypes, a negative judgment is established, which is based on a personal trait of the individual - in this case, having a mental health disorder. The common perception is that those with a mental illness have some kind of personal, and in most cases, permanent, weakness. There is much to be done, still, in terms of overcoming the many misconceptions, fears and biases of mental illness, and the stigma these attitudes create.

Stigma may be obvious and direct, such someone making a negative remark about your mental health condition or your treatment, or it can be subtle, such a someone assuming you could be violent or dangerous because you have a mental health condition. Stigma can contribute to anger, frustration, shame and low self-esteem. The consequences of stigma are serious and can be devastating."

Words of Stigma Can Be Poison

The stigma of mental illness is real, painful, and damaging to the lives of people with mental illness. Stigma prevents them from getting the treatment and support they need to lead healthy, normal lives. Many people don't want to be... labeled as "mentally ill" or "crazy."

Stigma keeps people from getting good jobs and advancing in the workplace. Some employers are reluctant to hire people who have mental illness. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), such discrimination is illegal. But it still happens!

Stigma leads to fear, mistrust, and violence. Even though the vast majority of people who have mental illness are no more violent than anyone else, the average television viewer sees three people with mental illness each week-and most of them are portrayed as violent. Even children's movies and cartoons can present a stereotypical version of mental illness, coloring children's view from an early age against those with mental health disorders. (Lawson, A., Calgary University). Such inaccurate portrayals lead people to fear those who have mental illnesses.

Stigma results in prejudice and discrimination. Many individuals try to prevent people who have mental illness from living in their neighborhoods.

Words Can Heal - Ending Stigma and Mental Health Disorders

Here are six steps you can follow to help end the stigma which surrounds mental health disorders

1. Learn more. Many organizations sponsor nationwide programs about mental health and mental illness. Several are listed at the end of this article.

2. Insist on accountable media. Sometimes the media portray people who have mental illnesses inaccurately, and this makes stereotypes harder to change.

3. Obey the laws in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including housing, employment, and public transportation. Mental illnesses are considered a disability covered under the ADA.

4. Recognize and appreciate the contributions to society made by people who have mental illnesses. (See Elyn Saks, schizophrenia, on this site). People who have mental illnesses are major contributors to American life-from the arts to the sciences, from medicine to entertainment to professional sports.

5. Treat people with the dignity and respect we all deserve. People who have mental illnesses may include your friends, your neighbors, and your family.

6. Think about the person - the contents behind the label.
Avoid labeling people by their diagnosis. Instead of saying, "She's a schizophrenic," say, "She has a mental illness." Actually, never use the term "mentally ill."

Programs to End Psychiatric Stigma

Many National and State groups have begun projects and campaigns to reverse stigma. These groups offer a range of programs and materials, from speakers bureaus to training programs for mental health professionals. To get involved, call.
To learn more about mental health, call SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center at 800-789-CMHS (2647).

SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center
P.O. Box 42557
Washington, DC 20015
800-789-CMHS (2647)

World Wide Web:
E-mail: [email protected]/

The Anti-Stigma Project
1521 South Edgewood Street, Suite C
Baltimore, MD 21227
Phone 410-646-0262, 800-704-0262, or
Fax 410-646-0264

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
730 North Franklin Street, Suite 501
Chicago, IL 60610

Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness Serving Hands International
4607 Mission Gorge Place
San Diego, CA 92120

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
Colonial Place Three
2107 Wilson Boulevard
Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201-3042

The National Empowerment Center
20 Ballard Road
Lawrence, MA 01843

The National Mental Health Association Information Center
2001 N. Beauregard Street - 12th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311800-969-NMHA

The National Mental Health Consumers' Self-Help Clearinghouse
1211 Chestnut Street, Suite 1000
Philadelphia, PA 19107

References for Mental Illness Stigma and Labeling

1. Bid to end mental health stigma, (June 13, 2004). BBC News.

2. Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness, (May 29, 2009). Mayo Clinic

3. Scheff, Thomas, PhD. Professor Emeritus of Sociology, UCSB. (Retrieved November 17, 2010).

Articles Related to Stigma and Psychiatric Labeling - offsite

Mental Illness and Work - Stigma. January 27, 2012. The Globe and Mail.

Other Works on the Stigma of Mental Illness

The Stigma of Mental Illness, by Judy Marshall

In modern life, we are ill-informed about mental health and illness, although we are fairly well-informed about physical health and illness. There is also an "all-or-nothing" stigma regarding psychological variation and problems. The assumption is either you are "normal" or you're not!

How this stigma and ignorance affects our lives is discussed. Ignorance breeds fear, denial, and more ignorance. Cultural misinformation and stereotypes are reinforced through the media. In an effort to prove to ourselves and others that we are "normal," we tend not to explore or share inner urges and feelings or take risks.

When confronted with psychological problems, we suffer in silence and alone. When dealing with chronic psychological issues or disorder, instead of managing the condition, the person assumes a "sick" or "defective" identity, causing even greater suffering. Some thoughts towards an attitude shift are presented. (Author's description, slightly edited for brevity).