What is Stigma and How Does it Apply to Mental Health?

The definition of stigma and preconceived ideas of mental illness.

Female depressed patient sitting on the chair in a hospital ward
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A stigma is a preconceived idea or stereotype that causes someone to devalue or think less of the person in question. People tend to distance themselves from individuals in stigmatized groups, to blame individuals in these groups for negative actions and to discriminate against the stigmatized individuals.

The Stigma of Mental Illness

Unfortunately, stigma is often an issue that those with mental illnesses must deal with, which makes getting effective treatment more difficult.

If you have an illness like borderline personality disorder (BPD), that means you have to handle the symptoms of your disease while also dealing with the preconceptions of others.

Because of portrayals of mental illness on television and in movies, many people view those with mental disorders to be dangerous, weak-willed, unstable and unreliable. According to research from World Psychiatry, surveys have shown that because of these depictions of these diseases, people's mindsets have been changed in a negative way. It has caused them to view those with mental illness in three ways:

  • Fear: They believe that mentally ill people are a danger to the people around them and are prone to violent episodes.
  • Irresponsible: People also believe that mentally ill people are self-indulgent and lazy and could get over the disease if they just stopped wallowing. 
  • Helpless: Others believe those with mental health issues are childlike and require the same assistance as a toddler, incapable of making their own choices.

    The Stigma Associated with Borderline Personality Disorder

    Of the major mental illnesses, individuals like you with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are perhaps among the most stigmatized. Even among healthcare professionals, BPD is frequently misunderstood. Common stereotypes include that BPD patients are dramatic, manipulative and attention-seeking.

    This can cause therapists to not take your symptoms or fears seriously, negatively impacting your health.

    Stigma surrounding BPD can also lead to misdiagnosis. Those with borderline personality disorder are frequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder because of a lack of understanding. Because the treatments for these illnesses are very different, this inaccurate diagnosis can harm your well-being.

    Because of these issues, it's important to find a doctor or clinician with a strong understanding of borderline personality disorder and the current standards of care.

    Stigma's Impact on Treatment

    This stereotype can make it more difficult for those undergoing treatment to find a stable job, secure safe housing and live a normal life. They are always suspected of wrongdoing, carelessness, or anger and so have difficulty building a regular routine. 

    Because of the heavy burden of stigma, many people with psychiatric difficulties attempt to hide their illness, refusing to admit to others or even to themselves that something is wrong.

    Others will neglect their treatment, skipping therapy sessions and medication so that their condition will not be discovered. This can cause major difficulties and delays in their therapy, causing significant setbacks.

    Stigma about mental health is very prevalent in society and is a constant struggle; these disorders continue to be perceived in incorrect ways. Some progress has been made to end preconceptions, but more work needs to be done. When pursuing treatment options, it's important to look for a doctor who understands your needs and to build a support network of people that you trust.


    Corrigan, P., Watson, A. Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry. Feb. 2002. 16-20.

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