In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of what mental health is and how it can be addressed in order to reduce its stigmatization. These strategies will be vital to tackling mental health going forward, improving the rates at which people seek out help, and increasing the efficacy of treatment. Here, we discuss the roots of mental health stigmatization and the role it currently plays in our societies.
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An evolutionary basis for stigmatization
For decades, scientists have understood that there is a stigma surrounding mental health disorders. Misconceptions relating to mental health issues and discrimination of those suffering such issues likely have evolutionary roots.
To this end, it has been hypothesized that humans have developed innate cognitive strategies that encourage them to prefer to socialize with others similar to them and avoid those likely of carrying a communicable disease. While these behaviors originally served an evolutionary purpose, these same cognitive biases now serve to enhance the suffering of those more vulnerable.
It is therefore important to understand how these stigmas develop in order to grow a stigma-free society that is accepting and understanding of all people, regardless of their mental health status.
The stigma surrounding mental health stems from ignorance
The modern stigmatization of mental health has also developed out of ignorance. During the 1950s, society suffered greatly from the ignorance surrounding mental health, which led to considerable fear and extreme stigma surrounding mental health disorders.
Ultimately, a lack of knowledge about mental health fueled this fear and stigma. Psychology was still in its beginnings, and much of the information that was available at that time was not widely shared with the public.
The 1950s were a dark time for mental health. Many people with mental health problems were incarcerated in asylums and subjected to severe and, often, completely useless treatments. These patients were considered ‘lunatics’ and ‘defective,' which propelled the fear that surrounded mental health.
The treatment of these individuals also inevitably prevented many people from seeking essential psychological assistance. In fact, it was a widely accepted opinion that mental health problems were incurable and irreversible.
Since the 1950s, research has demonstrated that the stigmatization and discrimination of mental health disorders can severely worsen a person’s mental health problems. This stigma can delay a person seeking help and treatment, which can ultimately impact their recovery.
Several factors have also been linked with the stigmatization of mental health disorders, some of which include poor housing, social isolation, poverty, and unemployment. In order to prevent this cycle of mental health problems from continuing, it is essential to change the attitude towards mental health to support those who are dealing with these issues.
Transforming the image of mental health
In the 1960s, psychiatry was finally considered a science. This recognition allowed for psychiatric patients to now be eligible for treatments in hospitals, rather than asylums. This shift in knowledge also reduced the taboo associated with conversations on mental health.
The 1970s saw another step forward in mental health, with research outside of the lab becoming the main focus of this scientific field. For the first time, scientists were studying people in real-world settings and gathering data on the experience of living with mental health problems, rather than collecting data in ‘artificial’ settings that are less likely to provide real insights.
By the 1980s, mental health research was established as a viable academic career. This acceptance by the academic community helped to further boost the outward view of mental health. The understanding of mental health as a complex issue involving social, psychological, and biological factors also became a more important goal.
This transition to greater acceptance was visible both in the academic settings and the real world, as it reduced the fear that was previously fueled by ignorance on mental health disorders. Psychiatric research was also granted a significantly greater amount of money, which played a crucial role in some of the landmark discoveries that were to be made within this field.
In the 1990s, researchers demonstrated the true prevalence of mental health disorders. In the United Kingdom, for example, it was revealed that one in four people had experienced mental health problems. As a result, mental health was finally recognized as something that impacts all humans, rather than just a small and isolated fraction of society.
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Today, the stigma surrounding mental health has greatly reduced; however, there is still much work to be done. Recent data shows that up to 75% of Americans and Europeans do not seek help for mental health problems due to fear of treatment, shame, and embarrassment.
Therefore, educational campaigns on mental health issues remain vital in normalizing conversations surrounding mental health.
- da Silva, A., Baldaçara, L., Cavalcante, D., Fasanella, N. and Palha, A., 2020. The Impact of Mental Illness Stigma on Psychiatric Emergencies. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00573/full
- Kurzban, R. and Leary, M., 2001. Evolutionary origins of stigmatization: The functions of social exclusion. Psychological Bulletin, 127(2), pp.187-208. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230896626_Evolutionary_Origins_of_Stigmatization_The_Functions_of_Social_Exclusion
- Stigma, discrimination and mental illness. Better Health Channel. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/servicesandsupport/stigma-discrimination-and-mental-illness