Stopping the Stigma of Mental Illness

Fostering open communication, education, transparency, advocacy, and outreach — both online and offline— are solid strategies to eradicate prevalent myths, fears, and stereotypes.

“A third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, Census Bureau data shows, the most definitive and alarming sign yet of the psychological toll exacted by the coronavirus pandemic,” according to a recent article in The Washington Post.

Daunting Data

Consider the following statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness

  • “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.”
  • “Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
  • “Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.”
  • “1.1% of adults in the U.S. live with schizophrenia” and “2.6% of adults in the U.S. live with bipolar disorder.”
  • “6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.”
  • “18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.”
  • “Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.”

If you haven’t personally experienced a mental illness it’s likely you know someone who has faced challenges inside and outside the workplace due to a psychiatric condition. People affected are our friends and neighbors, parents and relatives, co-workers, and acquaintances.

Ending the Stigma

There’s still a huge public stigma associated with mental illness, even in today’s modern age. Will it ever end? Perhaps more people will come to terms with the reality that mental illness is similar, in a general sense, to any other serious illness such as diabetes or cancer, for example. But other illnesses aren’t considered taboo topics in society at large.

Even though mental health support groups and advocacy organizations have grown over the years, the stigma lingers to the detriment of society. We hear about mental illness in the news, but usually in connection to mass shootings, suicides, and related tragedies. These negative stories serve to reinforce the public myths, fears and stereotypes which already abound. It’s rare to see a positive story in the media about people with mental illness. The news media need to do a better job with explanatory reporting and highlighting success stories.

We unify to observe Mental Health Month in May each year and similar weekly or daily public interest campaigns to raise awareness. However, most people then go back to their daily routines and don’t think much about it — unless they are personally affected or know someone who is, like a friend or family member.

Ponder these five questions:

  1. How as a society can we address vexing issues of mental health in a more effective and empathetic way?
  2. How can we accept mental illness for what it really is (a common disease), rather than what it is not (something only “crazy” people get)?
  3. What’s the appropriate role for government, the media and private industry to help end the stigma?
  4. Is it possible to end the centuries-old stigma or is this merely wishful thinking?
  5. Has mental illness become an ingrained social fixture for which those affected cannot escape being categorically singled out and discriminated against?

Obviously, these are perplexing questions with no quick fixes. If the answers were easy we would have found them by now.

EEOC’s Role

Many mental health impairments, such as depression, anxiety, and panic disorder, fall under the workplace protections of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (ADA). In addition to other laws enforced, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates, litigated, and voluntarily resolves ADA cases of disability discrimination in the workplace based on mental impairments (in addition to physical impairments).

EEOC reminds us: “It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you simply because you have a mental health condition. This includes firing you…”

In addition to other adverse actions impacting a person’s terms and conditions of employment.

Chris Kuczynski is an expert on disability employment. He’s a career attorney at the EEOC (assistant legal counsel) with whom I worked as a national media spokesman several years ago. Chris told me some companies still harbor myths and fears regarding safety risks posed by persons with mental health conditions.

However, it’s important for employers to comprehend that “the safety risks associated with mental disabilities are no greater than the safety risks associated with the population generally,” he said. Kuczynski also pointed out, “Mental disabilities are as diverse as physical disabilities in terms of how they manifest and how they are treated.”

Moreover, the stigma surrounding mental disabilities is related to the fact that they’re usually hidden. “We fear what we can’t see,” said Kuczynski. “The same is true for hidden physical disabilities.” His advice to employers:

If you can’t see a disability you may not understand it. That’s why it’s so important for employers to get the best and most accurate information possible about the disability they are dealing with.

Final Thoughts

Mental illness is a harrowing disease which has been unacceptably portrayed by the media and popular culture for decades. But it’s no longer the case that men wearing white uniforms will show up, put a patient in a straight jacket and drag them off to the so-called “loony bin.”

While medical treatments have vastly improved over the decades, not all mental illnesses can be mitigated all the time. Moreover, the disgrace and humiliation associated with mental illness remain problematic. People still use blatantly derogatory terms like “lunatic” and “nutty” to describe people with mental health conditions (both openly and behind closed doors).

It’s troublesome that in today’s modern high-tech Information Age the same old myths, fears, and stereotypes about mental illness still plague society.

  • Too many people still suffer in silence.
  • Too many people still refuse treatment.
  • Too many people still go undiagnosed.
  • Too much discrimination and harassment still exist.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says, “When life feels overwhelming, never be afraid to ask for help. There is absolutely no shame in doing so…” The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) points out, “Talking, sharing, and educating ourselves on mental health are just a few ways you can be a part of the movement…”

Perhaps advances in medical technology, biomedical research and breakthroughs in neuroscience and nanotechnology will ultimately alleviate or cure most mental illnesses.  But until that day arrives, hundreds of millions of people worldwide continue to suffer in silence. This situation is neither fair nor reasonable for the 44 million Americans with a mental health condition. It’s also important to understand that many other people with mental illness don’t come forward, meaning the total number reported is likely much higher. The current figure just represents the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.”

We can all do more to end the stigma every day and month of the year. The current national and global problem is simply untenable.

Editor’s Note: This article was previously published on American Diversity Report and The Good Men Project and is featured here with Author permission.


David B. Grinberg
David B. Grinberg
David is a strategic communications consultant, ghostwriter, and literary PR agent on issues of workforce diversity, equal employment opportunity, race and gender equity, and other social justice causes. He is a former career spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he managed media relations for agency headquarters and 50 field offices nationwide for over a decade. Prior to his public service at the EEOC, David was a young political appointee for President Bill Clinton in the White House: Office of Presidential Personnel, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB). A native New Yorker and University of Maryland graduate, David began his career in journalism. You can find David online via LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium, Good Men Project, Thrive Global, BIZCATALYST 360°, and American Diversity Report.

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  1. A timely article as always, David. I have to imagine that if you break that first statistic down, you would find the signs of depression are not evenly distributed across the populations. As health organizations report that COVID-19 has hit people of color disproportionally, one wonders if the statistics for “clinical anxiety or depression” fall out similarly?

    As “bad” as our view of mental is here, I understand it can worse in some European countries. I have friends and relatives in the U.K., for example, and therapy is no where near as available there as it is here.

    • Thanks so much for your valuable feedback, Jeff, which is most appreciated. You raise excellent points about mental health issues affecting communities of color, as well as how other countries react to and treat mental illness compared to the USA.