Mental Health Awareness Week & Stigma

1 Comment

Mental Health Awareness Week is October 6 through 12 this year.

Most mental health professionals would agree that the biggest stumbling block to advances in mental health outcomes is stigma.


What exactly is stigma? In a seminal work on the topic of stigma, Goffman calls it “spoiled identity”(Goffman,1986). The identity can be associated with a negative perception of others or oneself. Because association with the label of mental illness carries a negative connotation, it may lead to hiding problems, avoiding treatment or poor compliance over time. According to one researcher, mental illness stigma has three components: stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. “ A study in 2006 revealed the extent of the prejudice surrounding mental illness, when it showed that one in three U.S. adults endorsed the view that schizophrenia and depression are a result of “bad character.” (Interventions to Reduce Mental Health Stigma and Discrimination. The Rand Corporation, 2012).


First, let’s admit that ‘mental illnesses’ are pretty much segregated from ‘physical conditions.’ Within our healthcare system, are treated very differently. Hospitals may only treat one of these categories and health insurers often elect not to cover mental health treatment (Discrimination). This arbitrary separation alone encourages a person challenged by a mental health disorder to hide or ignore their symptoms. As in all other medical conditions, the longer it goes without effective treatment, the worse the outcome. While mental illness is not a communicable disease, it impacts everyone it touches and the fallouts are exponential emotionally, financially and often physically.


One recent representation of the stereotyping of mental illness in our society is the celebrity profiling of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. When it was publicized that Michael Douglas was suffering from throat cancer, he received support and many well-wishes for his recovery. Soon after, news broke that Catherine Zeta-Jones was again hospitalized for treatment for Bipolar Type II Disorder. Articles I’ve subsequently read seem to underscore how healthy Michael looks after his bout with cancer – he’s dapper, traveling, attending award shows, etc. In contrast, news and photos of Catherine seem to be looking for signs of her suffering: weight loss, depression, inability to cope, the number of times she has received treatment for her disorder (Prejudice).


When Douglas, in an interview, revealed that his throat cancer was due to the HP virus from oral sex, there didn’t seem to be any stigma being attached to it. It was almost like he was doing a PSA and the world admired him for it. On the other hand, after that interview, Zeta-Jones was reported to have returned to a treatment center, seemingly unable to handle the embarrassment of his statement (especially given that he didn’t qualify that she wasn’t the source of the virus).


Did society attach more of a stigma on Michael’s apparent sexual promiscuity (which he seems to allude to), or on Catherine’s response? After supporting a husband, 25 years her senior, through treatment and recovery for throat cancer, by his side during the arrest and conviction of her stepson, she needed medical intervention to help face the challenges of cyclic depression and anxiety. Douglas’ behavior seemed glossed over, while the latter provided magazine-selling headlines. In the magazine story itself, Catherine seems to be a caring, hands-on mother to her two children, a complete professional with an admirable demeanor throughout very stressful times, but that (gasp!) she is seen wearing black clothes and big black glasses. Meanwhile, Michael is portrayed as virile and fun loving, cruising the Mediterranean.


In this society, a man who has contracted a sexually transmitted disease that leads to cancer, is treated and cured, and given public kudos for his successful recovery. A gifted woman, who to all appearances is an involved, attentive mother and caring, faithful wife, is challenged by a disorder that I can tell you from my work with the Fund is under-diagnosed, under researched and inadequately treated. This is not an unusual circumstance. This is life with Bipolar Disorder and other mental illnesses.


Anyone who works in fundraising can tell you that cancer, childhood causes and pets get more financial support than mental health could every hope for; yet, mental illness costs more dollars than cancer and heart disease combined. There is no stigma associated with cancer and children and pets are so much cuter than the stereotypical portrait of a psychiatric patient. Suicide is the third largest cause of death in late adolescence and early adulthood; second, among college students. If mental illness impacts so many people, families, work places, etc., why isn’t there a groundswell for more research, insurance coverage, programs? Maybe, if you are embarrassed that your daughter hears voices or cuts herself, or that your son cannot control his aggression, that your wife tried to commit suicide, you won’t talk about it. Silence is not golden in this case; it’s often deadly.


So, what’s the answer? The answer is educating, communicating and understanding that mental illness is a disease of the brain. It’s recognizing that we need to learn how the brain works and fails us in cases of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, etc. Until then, the stigma of mental illness will relegate it to the shadows, where there is little hope for better outcomes.
Luckily for Ms. Zeta-Jones, she has the financial means to get support when she needs it and the strength to seek it out. Few of us have that safety net. The best some of us can hope for is the understanding and support of the people around us.



  • Seek Help.  Don’t allow others’ perception of the disease stop you from seeking care. You can feel better. There is hope.


  • Find support.  There are many federal and local organizations that have support groups for different psychiatric disorders. Many of them are listed on our resource page (


  • Reach out to others.  Isolation is counterproductive and may lead to a vicious cycle of self-recrimination and depression. Support from others is a key component to mental health.


  • You are not your illness. You are not bipolar any more than you are cancer. You have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, depression, etc. You have, not are bipolar.


  • Advocate for you child.  If your child has a mental illness, discrimination against him/her is illegal. Learn the rights of your child and get involved.


  • Speak Up.  Whether one on one, or via social media, give people the facts about mental health and illness. We can eliminate stigma bit by bit, by refuting one misconception at a time.



As part of a campaign to reduce stigma, The Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research asks that you wear a Sean Costello Fund t-shirt one day during Mental Health Awareness Week and take a “selfie” with it on. Post it on all of your social media sites, telling the world that there is no disgrace or shame to have, or know someone who has a mental illness. It might not be you or your immediate family, but mental illness touches one in every 4 people, so for sure, it’s someone you care about. Show them your support and and empower them to see themselves as people with a disease, not someone who is to blame or be ashamed. When we remove the stereotype by letting people know we aren’t afraid of being associated with the label, we can lessen the prejudice and work toward eliminating the discrimination.

One thought on “Mental Health Awareness Week & Stigma

  1. HIGH-TECH TENNIS on said:

    You can count on us—Will take two pics & post all over our social media sites. Sharing Sean’s story is a way to shine the light & start the conversation. I can’t tell you how many times it prompts people to share their personal experiences with mental health issues. Let’s start the conversation!!