Stigma and Illness
Stigma has been defined as an attribute that is deeply discrediting.1 This stigmatized trait sets the bearer apart from the rest of society, bringing with it feelings of shame and isolation. Often, when a person with a stigmatized trait is unable to perform an action because of the condition, other people view the person as the problem rather than viewing the condition as the problem.2 More recent definitions of stigma focus on the results of stigma—the prejudice, avoidance, rejection and discrimination directed at people believed to have an illness, disorder or other trait perceived to be undesirable.3 Stigma causes needless suffering, potentially causing a person to deny symptoms, delay treatment and refrain from daily activities. Stigma can exclude people from access to housing, employment, insurance, and appropriate medical care. Thus, stigma can interfere with prevention efforts, and examining and combating stigma is a public health priority.4
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the CDC have examined public attitudes toward mental illness in two surveys.4 In the 2006 HealthStyles survey, only one-quarter of young adults between the ages of 18–24 believed that a person with mental illness can eventually recover (HealthStyles survey [228.5 KB]). In 2007, adults in 37 states and territories were surveyed about their attitudes toward mental illness, using the 2007 Behaviorial Risk Factor Surveillance System Mental Illness and Stigma module. This study found that
- 78% of adults with mental health symptoms and 89% of adults without such symptoms agreed that treatment can help persons with mental illness lead normal lives.5
- 57% of adults without mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness.5
- Only 25% of adults with mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness.5
These findings highlight both the need to educate the public about how to support persons with mental illness and the need to reduce barriers for those seeking or receiving treatment for mental illness.
- Goffman, E. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1963.
- Braithwaite, D. O. “Isn’t it great that people like you get out?”: The process of adjusting to disability. In E. B. Ray (Ed.) Case Studies in Health Communication (pp. 149-160). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates;1993.
- Link BG, Phelan JC. Conceptualizing Stigma. Annu Rev Sociol 2001;27:363–85.
- CDC. Attitudes Toward Mental Illness—35 States, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, 2007. MMWR 2010;59(20);619–625. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5920a3.htm.