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Dignity & Living with a Mental Illness

Dignity & Living with a Mental IllnessDignity is easy to take for granted. It’s something we assume will be afforded us when we come in contact with the government, a healthcare system, or even strangers on the street. After all, aren’t we all worth of simple respect?

Sadly, dignity is one of those things all too often lacking in mental health care and treatment. From the language some people use to label people (“That schizophrenic I treated the other day…”) rather than their behaviors, to how too many doctors and nurses in a hospital turn their noses up at someone with mental health issues.

All human beings are deserving of dignity. Especially when being treated for a mental illness.

Dignity starts with the recognition that a person with mental illness is just the same as anybody else and is therefore deserving of the same rights. That means you can’t take away a person’s fundamental liberties (or their privacy) simply because they’re acting in a way that’s different than “normal.” Being weird — or mentally ill — is not against the law.

One test I always ask people to use to see if they’re discriminating against a person with mental illness — and therefore denying them their dignity — is to ask if they’d treat a person with a cancer diagnosis the same way. If the answer is, “No,” then discrimination is likely taking place, as well as robbing the person of their dignity.

How can we improve dignity for people with a mental illness? Here are a few ideas…

1. Dignity starts with language.

It’s time to put the old, prejudiced language describing people with a mental illness in negative, derogatory terms. You’d be aghast at the ways some doctors still talk about mental illness when in a room filled only with other healthcare professionals. It’s time to put an end to such stigmatizing language.

2. Dignity is treating others with respect.

Dignity isn’t hard to give to others — just imagine how you’d feel if you were standing in their shoes. Or if it were a loved one, such as your mother or father, daughter or son. This simple exercise can help us reset our internal dialogue and remind us to treat a person with mental illness with respect.

3. Dignity is not assuming you have the answers.

Too many well-meaning friends or family members think they have the answers that will solve another person’s problems, such as, “I tried a multi-vitamin and worked wonders for my mood!” Thoughtful advice, but it doesn’t really give a person credit for the work they’re already doing (or trying to do) to help treat their mental illness. Don’t assume you know what’s best for others, treat another like a child (when they’re a fully-grown adult), or assuming that what’s worked for you is going to work for someone else.

4. Dignity is respecting the choices made by others.

The hardest part of affording someone dignity is respecting their choices — even if you disagree with them. This can sometimes be difficult with someone who has a mental illness, especially when one of their choices is to not seek treatment. You may feel like such a choice will not benefit them, or even hurt them, in the long run. But affording them their dignity means respecting their choice.

5. Dignity is respecting a patient’s rights in a hospital and treatment.

Dignity is often hardest to maintain in an inpatient setting, when patients must tailor their own expectations with the rules and procedures of the hospital. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, however. A patient can be allowed dignity while in a hospital — and given the same rights as medical patients do — without throwing the hospital’s procedures into the waste basket.

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On World Mental Health Day 2015, we want to reaffirm every individual’s right to dignity — no matter what their diagnosis. Please stand with us in helping society understand that the loved ones in our lives who have a mental illness are no different than you or I. They deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect we’d afford anyone.

Dignity & Living with a Mental Illness

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Dignity & Living with a Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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