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Stigma, Mental Illness and Shame

Stigma, Mental Illness and ShameA quick quiz for you: You have friends coming over for dinner, and your antidepressant is in its usual place, the kitchen counter.

Do you: A) leave it where it is, since you have nothing to hide? B) put it in the cupboard to make more room for food? C) stick it in the cat food bag, where no one will find it? D) put it on the table so you’ll remember to compare notes with your friends who are on other medications?

Next question: Would it be different if your medication was for your diabetes? What about if it were for an STD? Erectile dysfunction? Cancer? AIDS?

The Oxford Dictionaries defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person: the stigma of mental disorder.”

For some, this means hiding medication when friends come over. For others, the stigma means they’re afraid of telling their boss that they have to take time off for therapy, or that they were hospitalized because of a psychiatric illness. Often a client has family members who don’t know about his illness or treatment because he feels ashamed. And shame is a big, powerful feeling.

Recently, celebrities have been open about their own mental illnesses, and my hope is that this will have a positive impact on the rest of society. Princes Diana brought the problem of self-injury into light. Catherine Zeta Jones’s recent stay in a psychiatric hospital made headlines. John Nash, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1994, inspired the book and film “A Beautiful Mind,” which explored how his schizophrenia and genius are intrinsically intertwined.

We’ve come a long way from the time when people with mental illnesses were locked away for the rest of their lives. Mental illnesses can be successfully treated much of the time, with medication, psychotherapy, or both. People with severe mental illnesses have gone on to live normal lives. Statistics say that 26 percent of adults may have a diagnosable mental disorder. The percentage of people who actually obtain treatment is far less, however, due in part to the stigma that continues to flourish.

In real life, the stigma of mental illness can take the form of thoughts such as:

  • “I am weak if I have to take medication” – also known as “I can do this on my own”
  • “I am not like my mother/father/crazy aunt/neighbor who has mental illness”
  • “People will think I’m crazy”
  • “I’ll get fired”
  • “People will treat me differently”
  • “My friends/lover/spouse will leave me”

Opening up about any illness is frightening. You can never be sure what a person’s reaction will be, and that is scary. At some point, though, you have to trust that the people who love you will continue to love you. You’re still the same person. I’ve found that when people disclose to their friends and family that they have been diagnosed with a mental illness, there is a sense of relief. Most likely the people closest to you have seen symptoms of your illness and are glad that you are obtaining the treatment you need. Friends and family can also be more prepared to support your treatment journey when they know what is going on.

I believe that disclosing one’s illness, whether it be physical or mental, is a choice. We all have private and public lives, and those need to be respected and honored. You are not compelled to discuss your eating disorder to your boss, or your anxiety to your best friend. And keep in mind that discrimination on the basis of mental illness is illegal.

When you share your diagnosis of any illness, you open yourself up to help and compassion. You might also be surprised when your disclosure encourages others to disclose their mental illnesses as well. Having a bottle of Celexa on the counter is certainly less embarrassing than tweeting a ‘personal picture’ of yourself to the world. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about, and my hope is that everyone can find their own way to experience this.

Stigma, Mental Illness and Shame

Jenise Harmon, LISW

Jenise Harmon, LISW, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. Follow her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2018). Stigma, Mental Illness and Shame. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Oct 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.