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Internalized Stigma: What We Believe Has Power

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Warning before reading: There are examples of mental health stigma in this article. While it’s meant to be educational, if this may be a trigger, please take care of yourself and consider not reading.

Much has been written about stigma and mental health. Because of the stigma that mental health issues sometimes carry, many people don’t reach out for the support they need. This has never been a more serious problem than now, a time in which many are saying that we are on the brink of a mental health crisis. An example of how serious this time is in terms of mental health, the US Surgeon General recently issued a warning for kids and concerns for their mental health due to the ongoing pandemic. It’s difficult enough to access care because of cost and therapist availability right now. And although we have made strides in the right direction as far as fighting stigma in the mental health field, what about the stigma those who are suffering feel about themselves and their own struggles?

What is Internalized Stigma?

Simply put, internalized stigma is stigma turned inward. It may show up as invalidating one’s own experience, minimizing symptoms, refusing the need for treatment, or expecting one’s recovery to go much quicker than could be expected. Some statements that would be examples of internalized stigma include, “I’m just lazy” in regards to depression or “It was my fault it happened” in regards to trauma.

Reasons Why Internalized Stigma Exists and What We Can Do

Below are four common problems that perpetuate stigma and internalized stigma with solutions that we can take now.

1. Media

Problem: Most of us are on social media. There’s a wealth of information that’s educational about mental health out there, but unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions or flat-out lies too. An example of perpetuating stigma is using the phrase “I love to be organized, I’m so OCD” in a comment.

Solution: If you personally know the person who made the comment, you might consider reaching out to them privately and giving them a bit of information in a kind and compassionate way. Or, if it’s something that you feel is very hurtful and over the line, you might consider reporting the post.

2. Family and friends

Problem: Depending on how much information your family/friends were given or learned, a person may hear statements that contain mental health stigmas from said loved ones. Those around us tend to shape our beliefs, and what loved ones say also tends to stick in our minds as more important and/or true even when it’s not.

Solution: Sometimes there are opportunities to talk to our loved ones about more helpful ways they could talk about mental health, but not always. Remember, engaging in an argument is often not helpful and more hurtful to you and to them. Offering access to educational information if the person is open to it is a great way to start.

3. Access to care

Problem: What does it say about how we as a society prioritize mental health considering care can be so difficult to get? We have made great strides in accessibility, especially with the more common practice of teletherapy and greater access to covered therapeutic services by health insurance, but we are a long way from making access to therapy a right rather than a privilege.

Solution: If you are able, consider writing your elected officials to advocate for better access to mental health care services. Or, donate to a nonprofit like NAMI. There are also volunteer opportunities out there to support our communities.

4. Lack of information/Misinformation

Problem: We judge what we don’t understand. Not knowing isn’t an excuse, but it is an explanation. That’s where programs like NAMI are very important. Easy access to free educational information is key to this one.

Solution: You might consider posting reputable resources on your social media.

How We Make Changes

As a therapist, I can say therapy is a powerful tool to fight internalized stigma. However, many who are experiencing this type of stigma currently aren’t accessing therapy. So change needs to continue on a much broader scale. Expanding access to services, lowering costs, and raising awareness all would help. But most importantly, each of us has a voice and can work to end this type of stigma. Many of us are on social media - make sure what you’re posting isn’t perpetuating stigma. There’s no shame in not knowing about something and learning, but let’s all agree to not rush to judgment and intolerance. It’s time to educate ourselves. Groups like NAMI are wonderful in terms of giving educational information about mental illnesses free of charge.

It should be noted that one additional way that stigma can be challenged is by those who are suffering to share their experience. I’m a big believer though, that just because you have a mental health illness, does not mean you have to share it publicly. Your story is yours. The first priority is your healing. Whether or not that includes sharing your story, your journey is still valid and you are worthy of recovery. What we need is for those of us who are not struggling to advocate as well. My hope is for mental health care to be as accessible and accepted as going to the doctor when you break a bone.

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