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What is stigma? Stigma is a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the public to fear, reject, avoid and discriminate against people with mental illnesses. It is not just a matter of using the wrong word or action. It is about disrespect. Merriam Webster, dictionary publisher, defines stigma as “a scar or brand left by a hot iron.” When applied to the field of mental health and substance abuse, stigma hurts, punishes and diminishes people.

Many say living with stigma is worse than living with the illness itself. Most stigma comes from the Hollywood-created perception of padded walls and old-fashioned asylums. Stigma leads to fear, mistrust, and violence against people living with mental illness and their families. Due to inaccuracies and misunderstandings, people have been led to believe that an individual with a mental illness has a weak character or is inevitably dangerous.

The result is that, for many, living with the stigma is worse then living with the illness itself. It often discourages people from seeking help and talking openly about their condition. Patients and families must learn to live with and fight the stigma or mental illness.

Mental illnesses can strike anyone. It knows no age limits, economic status, race, creed or color. In fact, one in every four Americans will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Today, most people can lead productive lives within their communities, thanks to a variety of supports, programs, and/or medications. People with mental illnesses, like everyone else, have the potential to work at any level depending on their own abilities, experience and motivation! This is evidenced by this list of well-known individuals who have lived with a mental illness: Jane Pauley, Robin Williams, Aretha Franklin, Charley Pride, Ted Turner, Patty Duke, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Eric Clapton, Burt Reynolds, and Edie Falco.
Some tips for fighting stigma include:

Share your experience with mental illness. Your story can convey to others that having a mental illness is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Respond to false statements about mental illness or people with mental illnesses. Many people have wrong and damaging ideas on the subject. Accurate facts and information may help change both their ideas and actions.

Use respectful language when talking about persons with mental illnesses. Don’t use terms like crazy, lunatic, or slow functioning.

Emphasize abilities, not limitations!

The best tool in fighting stigma is education. Learn all you can about your family member’s illness.