Mental Health: Removing the Barrier of Stigma


One of the hurdles that people living with mental illness continue to face is stigma. A person with a mental health condition is all too frequently isolated by negative attitudes, disparaging comments, or even violence, in a way that a person with a physical ailment would never be.

These members of our community are confronted with a range of misconceptions and false beliefs. Among them:

  • “People with mental illness can’t handle stress.” To the contrary, with access to proper care and support, they can make contributions that are as invaluable, and maintain relationships that are as strong, as those of anyone else.
  • “Mental illness induces dangerous behavior.” In fact, a person with mental illness is four times more likely to be on the receiving end of violence than the general public.
  • “They can just snap out of it.” Healing a person of depression, addiction, or an eating disorder is the result of a process, not a spontaneous decision.

One of the consequences of stigma is that people with mental health issues are likely to encounter discrimination in the workplace and the community. They may miss out on job opportunities, social activities, or even housing. A concern equally as serious, if not more so, is that stigmatization frequently keeps those people from seeking care. In an effort to avoid being shamed, or because of self-doubt brought on by shaming, people with mental illness may hide their reality from family or avoid disclosing their condition to their doctor. Drug abuse, anorexia, bulimia, anxiety, depression—the signs of these and other mental illnesses can often be concealed until a life-threatening incident occurs.

Overcoming the stigma of mental illness needs to be a nationwide health priority.

Around 20 percent of Americans experience a mental illness, and the prevalence of mental disorders in our society holds true in Orange County as well. Nearly 10 percent of county adults experience frequent mental distress, and 13 percent of the Medicare population lives with depression. The county has also experienced an upward trend in the rate at which children under 18 years are hospitalized for a mental health issue.

We need to help our communities learn to think—and talk—about mental illness as a medical problem, not as a personal shortcoming. Substance abuse, severe anxiety, depression, and eating disorders are illnesses as physically real, and as in need of medical treatment, as broken bones, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer.

We also need to make sure our health systems are designed to integrate mental health care into health care as a whole, and to free mental health patients from any shame about their conditions that they or their family may have internalized. Parents will contact a doctor or a hospital with questions about care for their child who is struggling with chemical dependency, for example, but even then they sometimes hesitate to ask, because of fear of judgment. Those parents – or anyone struggling with mental health – need our encouragement to break through the barrier of stigma and make the call. They need to know that help is available without criticism or blame.

There is much outreach to be done to overcome mental health stigma, but the inclusive, comprehensive model of care we’ve implemented at Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach is making real gains in eliminating stigma in the communities we serve. A crucial feature of that model is family involvement. In the past, care providers used to talk about treating the “identified patient.” Those days are gone, and we offer help for the whole family, giving spouses and parents of mental health patients the tools they need, teaching empathy and showing them how to be a support system for their loved one. In turn, they go back and share their experience with friends, dispelling shame and secrecy, and helping their loved ones achieve confidence and peace of mind.

We’re further encouraged by the community wins from our ongoing collaboration in California’s mental health movement, Each Mind Matters. You may have seen our lime green benches at local events, schools, and shopping areas. They provide a safe space for open and honest conversations about mental health and how early support for mental illness saves lives. Thousands of our neighbors in south Orange County have shared stories and made promises to talk about how mental health is an integral part of our well-being. With every one of those conversations, the stigma of mental illness is reduced a little bit more.

Our health is composed of mind, body, and spirit. The more we can raise awareness of that unity, the better able we will be to fully meet the health care needs of our communities.

Debbie Hutchinson, Psy.D., MFT, is the Clinical Manager of Outpatient Mental Health Programs at Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach.