How Stigma Can Worsen Mental Health Struggles

Taking care of your mental health is no easy task, even with a supportive environment. In this case, environments that expose you to stigma and prejudice are highly likely to hurt your mental health. 


What is stigma? 


Stigma revolves around negative attitudes and discrimination against people based on specific characteristics that distinguish them from others. This includes gender, class, caste, mental illness, disability, neurodivergence, race, religion, weight, and more.


Stigma can manifest in the real world in a variety of ways such as listening to stereotypes or experiencing prejudice while finding an apartment to rent.


There are two major types of stigma that people face, which are 


Social stigma: This is prejudice against other people in social situations or media and culture. Two other types of stigma that fall under social stigma include public stigma (Humiliation in front of a large group of people) and professional stigma (at the workplace).


Self-stigma: This is a stigmatised person’s internalised prejudice against themselves due to social stigma.


How does stigma affect mental health?


In order to understand how stigma affects mental health, it helps to know the real-world consequences that prejudice can cause for marginalised individuals.


For example, a study from the American Psychological Association shows that communities that have higher instances of racial prejudice tend to have health issues including heart problems, poor maternal health, and poor mental health.


Stigma might also affect receiving healthcare as doctors might discriminate against the individual or provide poor care due to a stigmatised health condition or just body weight.


Stigma can also cause people to lose out on opportunities including the basics such as their preferred home to live in or a job they worked hard to get. 


Due to its negative effects on an individual’s life, stigma will either cause mental distress or make your current mental distress worse. This is because it is a negative stimulus that introduces doubts, stress and shame into your internal thought process. Encountering such prejudice can lead to several consequences for the stigmatised individual. This includes, 


  • Shame
    Feeling ashamed of one’s identity, illness or disability can lead to situations where the stigmatised individual withdraws from society and avoids seeking help from mental health practitioners to help cope with the stigma. Feelings of shame might also lead to more dangerous behaviours like self-mutilation and sabotage. For example, people might turn to substance abuse in order to cope with feelings of shame.

  • Poor Self-respect
    Exposure to stigma can lead to low self-esteem in a stigmatised individual. This might lead to feelings of unworthiness and acceptance of poor life quality or even dangerous, abusive situations set up by individuals who stigmatise them. This isolates the individual and makes them believe that they are not deserving of a better quality of life or hobbies or change. For example, an individual who faces stigma because of their skin colour might feel they are not deserving of romance because of people’s prejudice against their looks.

Seeking help

Seeking help for coping with stigma, both social and self, is a daunting task for many, as it requires mental effort to break through shame and self-hate in order to protect oneself. However, that does not mean it is impossible. Here are some ways to move towards that goal.


  • Educate yourself: The first step to defeating any form of stigma is knowing more about the identity that is being stigmatised. There is a large amount of literature and online articles that break down the basics of marginalisation in a simple, easy-to-understand manner. For instance, if you face stigma related to your weight, there is lots of reading, videos and podcasts that can help you understand the roots of fatphobia and how diet culture works. Understanding these topics can help you move beyond the shame and self-hatred attached to not being able to lose weight.
  • Speak to someone like you: Speaking to an individual or a group of people undergoing the same stigma empowers the lone stigmatised individual to feel a sense of community and acceptance. This acceptance leads to powerful feelings of self-worth and a desire to fight back against prejudice that harms your community. You can find your community in an online forum or at a meet-up or cultural events.
  • Speak to someone who cares: Speaking to someone who cares about your well-being is an excellent way to remember that you are valued and important to someone. This person can also help you pave the way towards seeking help for feelings of shame and guilt, or more serious mental health concerns.
  • Consider therapy: Speaking to a psychologist is a solid step towards understanding your feelings of shame and guilt related to your identity. Your therapist will help you develop tools to tackle the stigma you face or the means to move away from social stigma that is impeding your quality of life.

Can challenging stigma help your mental health?


The answer boils down to – it depends. If you believe you are resilient enough to face the prejudiced people, standing up for yourself and shutting down prejudice can give you a huge self-esteem boost. On the other hand, if you are up against a batch of people with no empathy or interest in change, you might feel like you are screaming at a wall – this will hurt your self-worth more than repair it. 


In this case, it is best to think about confrontation deeply and talk about it with a friend or a therapist in order to have a clear idea of what you’d like to attempt. Remember, leaving a situation full of tone-deaf people is as much standing up for yourself as is giving them a stern talking-to. 


Immediate confrontation is not always necessary. You can also challenge stigma by speaking or writing about it for an audience. Consider writing a blog or an article or a letter to an editor outlining why prejudice is harmful. Having your opinion out in the world is also a means to gain self-respect and validation. 


Bear in mind, long-term public confrontations related to fighting stigma against people who share your identity is activism. Such activism requires enormous mental labour, resilience and the ability to weather piles of hate thrown at you. Before you keep going, ask yourself if you have the mental space to engage in activism.


Moving forward


Unfortunately, stigma takes a lot of time to go away. For example, though we are living in an age where there are tons of resources and means to seek out help for mental health struggles, you might still face stigma about your condition from your family or workplace. 


In such a society, the only respite from stigma is to find your community and to surround yourself with people who care about you. This includes making new friends, joining a supportive work place or frequently keeping in touch with family. Several tethers to people and groups that make you feel loved and valuable will help you weather the stigma you might face at any time.


Beyond self-care, it is important, as a marginalised person, to not stigmatise others who are marginalised. Not propagating the same prejudice towards others is perhaps the most important contribution you can make to help push society forward


More blogs