Department of Psychiatry
Penn Behavioral Health

PAH Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic

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Newsletter: November 2010

Mental Health Stigma: What Gets in the Way of Seeking Help?

Lacondria Simmons

According to the 2005 National Comorbidity Survey Replication study, approximately 1 in 3 Americans experience a mental health disorder in any given year. This translates to over 75 million individuals. Nearly half of Americans will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime.  It is likely that you or someone that you know has or will experience a psychological problem.  Despite these alarming statistics, other studies have found that less than one fourth of people suffering from a psychological disorder seek help from a mental health professional.  While there are many reasons for the discrepancies in help-seeking behavior, stigma can prevent people from receiving the help that they need.  The word “stigma” is derived from ancient Greece and referred to a mark that was typically cut or burned into a person’s body to denote either a moral or character defect.  When others saw this mark, they avoided the person, especially in public places.  Individuals with a mental health disorder may feel similarly ostracized and feel embarrassed about having a psychological or emotional problem. Contemporary television shows frequently use derogatory terms, such as unstable, crazy, and unpredictable, to describe those who suffer from mental illness.  The mentally ill are often portrayed in the media as being more dangerous than the general population; however, there is limited evidence to substantiate this claim.  Despite the efforts by anti-stigma campaigns to educate the public on mental health disorders, many people continue to hold inaccurate beliefs about mental illness.  Internalizing negative beliefs can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy, shame, and prevent you from seeking help.

Not seeking help when you are experiencing an emotional or psychological problem can have serious consequences.  You might feel reluctant to talk with someone and attempt to handle things on your own.  Some people look to alcohol and/or drugs to manage the distress that they feel.  However, these solutions are a temporary fix for what is usually an ingrained and complex problem.  Alcohol and drugs can exacerbate mental illness by intensifying feelings of hopelessness and sadness (see the June 2010 newsletter for a review of the impact of alcohol use on mental health).  Also, we know that psychological problems have a greater chance of recurring when they go untreated.  In addition, emotional pain impacts the person experiencing it, as well as their loved ones.  Not addressing a mental illness may prevent you from having the quality of life that you want and deserve.

Mental health professionals have clinically proven methods to treat different disorders.  In many cases, seeing a professional can bring you the relief that you are looking for.  Thus, if you find yourself reluctant to seek psychological help because of fear or embarrassment, there are several things that you might consider.  Foremost, discussing your problem with a supportive person can help.  In a recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association, 79% percent of those surveyed believed that seeking and receiving support from family and friends reduced feelings of stigma.  

Knowing more and sharing with others can also help reduce stigma.  For example, there are many factors that determine who develops a mental health disorder.  Most mental health professionals believe that genetic vulnerabilities and environmental factors interact to produce mental illness.  Understanding that you are not to blame for your illness can decrease stigma and increase the likelihood of getting the help that you need.  Many cities offer support groups for people experiencing a mental health problem.  These groups provide a place to connect with others who are experiencing similar challenges.

Mental illness transcends age, ethnicity, gender, class, and other individual differences. People from all walks of life experience psychological problems.  Educating yourself about your illness and seeking professional help can bring the hope, empowerment, and resilience you need to successfully live with a mental illness.


Brown, K. & Bradley, L. J. (2002). Reducing the stigma of mental illness. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 24, 81-87.

Crabtree, J.W., Haslam, S.A., Postmes, T., & Haslam, C.  (2010). Mental health support groups, stigma, and self-esteem: Positive and negative implications of group identification. Journal of Social Issues, 66, 553-569.

Grohol, J.M. (2010, May 3). Mental Health Statistics. Retrieved October 24, 2010 from

Kessler, R.C., Chiu, W. T., Demler, O., Walters, E.R. (2005). Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-Month DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archive of General Psychiatry, 62, 617-627.

 Kessler, R.C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K.R., & Walters, E.E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archive of General Psychiatry, 62,593-602.

APA survey reveals support of family, friends fuels decline in mental health stigma.

Source: Mental Health Weekly ; 5/10/2010, Vol. 20 Issue 18, p5-5, 1/2p