What are stigma and discrimination?

May 1, 2017

Stigma and discrimination are two of the biggest problems facing people with mental health challenges. Stigma means seeing people with mental illness negatively because of their health condition. That might mean assuming that they are violent, that they just lack self-control or are weak, or that they’re not intelligent. People fear what they don’t understand. Because of stigma, people with mental illness often face discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere. 

Our culture is filled with negative attitudes about mental illness. Think about how many times you’ve heard the word “psycho” used in a movie or in a TV series to describe someone dangerous and unpredictable. How often do you use “psycho” or “crazy” in your everyday language?

  • What if you learned that someone you work closely with has bipolar disorder?
  • Would that affect how you see them?
  • Would you find yourself treating them differently?
  • Would you be scared of them?
  • Would you stop wanting to socialize with them?

If you have a mental illness, stigma can cause you to fear being labelled or judged. Because of the fear of being stigmatized, some people don’t seek treatment or they don’t talk to people close to them about their symptoms.

Stigma can severely impact people’s lives based on the assumptions they make about each other:

  • Former friends want nothing to do with me because of my mental illness.
  • People laugh and gossip about me because of my mental illness.
  • My mental illness makes people afraid to form relationships with me.
  • People don’t take my feelings seriously anymore; they attribute everything to my illness.
  • People give me fewer responsibilities at work and at home, because of my mental illness.
  • Ever since I underwent psychiatric treatment, people no longer treat me like a normal person.
  • My mental illness is a taboo subject for my social circle (family, friends, co-workers).
  • People have told me that I am imagining my illness or that I don’t look ill.

Stigma by the numbers

  • Less than half of Canadians who think they have depression or anxiety have gone to see a doctor about it.
  • According to a 2008 survey, only half of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers that they have a family member with a mental illness.
  • 42% of Canadians don’t know if they would socialize with a friend who has a mental illness.
  • 55% of Canadians say they would be unlikely to enter a spousal relationship with someone who has a mental illness.
  • 83% of employees believe that they have a responsibility to self-identify if they have a mental illness, but 31% felt that their direct supervisor would not be understanding or supportive if they did (Ipsos Reid, 2012).

6 things you can do to fight stigma

  1. Talk openly about mental health.
  2. Educate yourself and others in your union—learn more about mental illnesses and their effects.
  3. Be conscious of your language – don’t use words like “psycho”, “mental” or “schizo” or say demeaning things about people with mental illness in conversation – and challenge others who do.
  4. Don’t avoid people with mental illness.
  5. Be open and supportive if someone talks to you about their mental health.
  6. Make discussions and information about mental health visible in your union and workplace

Read more on the CMHA Myths About Mental Illness.