Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Mental Health Stigma and the Loss of Human Potential

Philip Yanos

Mental Health

World Mental Health Day is an annual day promoted by the World Health Organization, with the objective of “raising awareness of mental health issues.”  Today, many government officials, policy makers and celebrities will make statements about the need to overcome stigma (such as stereotypes that people with mental illness are dangerous, incompetent and unable to recover) and encourage people with mental health issues to seek help.  These are both laudatory goals; however, as I explain in my forthcoming book Written Off: Mental Health Stigma and the Loss of Human Potential, it is important to consider why raising awareness and encouraging people with mental health issues to seek help ultimately has little impact on stigma.  First, messages about mental health issues continue to usually emphasize that they are “diseases like any other.”  Although these messages lead the public to feel that people with mental illnesses are not to blame for their conditions, they have little impact on negative stereotypes, and there is evidence that the disease model may lead members of the general public to develop even stronger beliefs that people with mental illnesses are fundamentally “different” and cannot be helped.  Second, one of the major ways that stigma impacts people with mental health issues is by leading them to internalize negative stereotypes held by community members, which in turn leads them to become isolated, passive, and less hopeful about the future.  Although we might assume that treatment would reduce these effects, these effects are actually more pronounced among people who are receiving treatment and demonstrating “insight” (meaning that they are aware that they have significant mental health problems).  Of course, treatment is very important for reducing upsetting symptoms, but mental health treatment systems need to recognize their role in facilitating these “side effects” of receiving treatment.  Until mental health systems institute a fundamental culture change that no longer inadvertently increases people’s feelings that they are fundamentally damaged or less than human, people will continue to be negatively impacted by stigma, as well as try to avoid receiving treatment services that they think will lead them to be permanently “marked” in a negative way.

So, today, let’s think about how we can all commit to accepting mental health issues as part of the human experience, that can occur to any and all of us depending on life circumstances, rather than seeing people with mental health issues as fundamentally different.  Let’s commit to changing the culture in society at large to be more tolerant of the presentation of mental health issues, and to changing the culture within our mental health treatment settings to allow people to continue to be themselves and hold on to their hopes and dreams for the future.

Reviews and Endorsements for Written Off: Mental Health Stigma and the Loss of Human Potential

Mental health stigma is an issue of social injustice.  Professor Yanos eloquently captures inequities wrought by stigma, grounding solutions where they belong, in the hands of people with lived experience.”– Patrick W. Corrigan, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Illinois Institute of Technology

In a scholarly and compassionate analysis, Yanos eloquently documents the stigma of mental illness, who is most likely to stigmatize, and the heavy toll of stigma on people with psychiatric conditions and their families. And yet, a solid foundation for hope is also laid through the discussion of recent developments in peer support and treatment that have the promise of helping people with mental health challenges overcome the effects of stigma, reclaim a sense of worth in their own eyes and that of society, and realize their true human potential. This should be required reading for all students, clinicians, researchers, and policy makers working in the mental health profession.”– Kim T. Mueser, Professor, Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

Find out more about Written Off: Mental Health Stigma and the Loss of Human Potential

About The Author

Philip Yanos

Philip T. Yanos, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at John Jay College, City University of New York. He is an Associate Editor for the journal Stigma and Health, and the interim Di...

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