Why We Need to Break the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health and Therapy

Breaking the stigma surrounding mental health starts with conversations that normalize seeking help. Almost one billion people are affected worldwide. So why aren’t we talking about it more?

Ashley Laderer By Ashley Laderer

Updated on May 21, 2024

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon

Even though mental health conditions affect almost one billion people worldwide, there is undoubtedly a negative stigma surrounding mental health – but why?

While there’s been growing awareness of mental health struggles and how serious they are, many people continue to hold negative attitudes toward those who struggle with mental illness and seek therapy. 

Society is slowly but surely taking steps to raise awareness and increase sensitivity, but plenty of progress still needs to be made.

Why Is There a Stigma Around Mental Health and Therapy?

Sadly, the stigma of mental health conditions is nothing new. It’s been deeply rooted in history and part of various cultures for centuries. Despite all the advancements we’ve made as a society and in the field, a negative stigma still remains.

The History of Mental Health Stigma 

In the Middle Ages, people believed that mental illness was caused when someone was “possessed by the devil” as a punishment for sins. People with mental illness were subjected to tragic and horrific acts, from being burned at the stake to being chained to penitentiary walls. Later, in Nazi Germany, an estimated 180,000 people with mental illness were heavily discriminated against and killed. 

Things took a slight turn for the better in the 1800s when the earliest versions of psychiatric hospitals were created – although calling them “lunatic asylums” or “insane asylums” certainly didn’t help the stigma. While these institutions, for the most part, did have the intention of treating mental illness, conditions in the institutions were deplorable. Providers’ treatments (such as electroshock therapy) were inhumane.

Thankfully, the 20th century led to further advancements in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, resulting in a better understanding of mental health disorders and more effective, science-based treatments, like psychotherapy and medications. Still, the negative stigma surrounding mental health remained prevalent, and many who sought much-needed treatment faced discrimination and ostracism.

General Lack of Understanding and Myths 

In the grand scheme of things, a scientific approach and a clearer understanding of mental illness are relatively new. While there’s been plenty of advancements in the field, there’s still a great lack of understanding surrounding mental health concerns. Harmful and hurtful myths still prevail due to a general lack of education surrounding mental health

Simply put, mental health is not something that people grow up learning about. The majority of people simply do not understand what mental illness is, how it presents itself, or how to help those who are struggling. As a result, they may resort to stereotypes or negative attitudes toward individuals with mental health conditions

Misrepresentation in the Media

Adding to the miseducation and misunderstanding surrounding mental illness, the media also contributes to the misinformation on this topic.

“What the media represents can be inaccurate and misleading about what mental health symptoms look like,” says Tahara DeBarrows, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Grow Therapy. She notes that TV and movies don’t necessarily depict an accurate range of mental health conditions or symptoms, and things tend to be more exaggerated and less realistic. Not to mention, portrayals of people with mental illnesses are often in a negative light in entertainment, further fueling the stigma. 

Cultural Beliefs

The stigma around mental health, especially surrounding therapy, may be more prominent in certain cultures. For example, in some cases, families can become very upset about discussing what they see as “family matters” with outsiders, says Dr. Gina Griffin, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy. 

This is common amongst Asian Americans, where in many cases, discussing mental health is taboo. Experts say that some Asian Americans feel extra pressure from their communities to appear strong, and they may view mental health disorders as an indication that they are “weak,” and fear letting down their family. Asian Americans seek professional help three times less than white Americans do. 

Another population that has cultural ties linked to mental health treatment is African Americans, who have valid reasons to mistrust clinicians and medical and mental health communities in general, says Dr. Griffin. Some advancements in medicine were due to inhumane and non-consensual practices with Black people. “It’s been very hard to rebuild trust after these types of atrocities,” she says. 

DeBarrows echoes this sentiment, saying that as an African American, the history of medical professionals and the mistrust has been embedded in some families’ culture. Only 25% of Black people who need mental health treatment seek it out, compared to 40% of white people. 

Misconceptions Surrounding Therapy

On top of everything surrounding mental health conditions, there is of course an added layer of stigma around therapy.

Therapy stigma exists in part due to a lack of understanding. People may view therapy as a sign of weakness or believe that only “crazy” people need therapy – which is a harmful thought in and of itself. This often ties back to cultural beliefs or just what we have been taught as a society. 

DeBarrows says many people believe therapy is only for people who have severe significant mental health issues – but this is not the case. The impact of this is twofold. First, people may be scared to seek out therapy because they fear it would indicate that there is something seriously wrong with them. Second, they fear that if others knew they were in therapy, those people would think the same thing about them. 

Many individuals aren’t aware that there are so many types of therapy, different types of people who seek therapy, and different reasons to go to therapy

Get started with therapy today

Browse therapists

The State of Mental Health: What the Research Shows

According to the CDC, over 50% of people will receive a diagnosis of a mental health condition in their lifetime. In any given year, one out of every five Americans (20%) experiences a mental illness. One out of every 25 Americans is diagnosed with a serious mental illness, which includes major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia

These numbers support the notion that mental health challenges are extremely common, probably more common than we think. Not everyone who suffers is open about it, and many disorders are “invisible illnesses” to outsiders, making it seem like much fewer people struggle than they actually do.

Sadly, many people who grapple with mental health die by suicide. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among kids ages 10 through 14 and people 25 through 34. It is the third leading cause among people ages 15 through 24, and the fourth leading cause among people ages 35 through 44.

Why We Need to Break the Stigma

Ultimately, the stigma itself becomes a major barrier to treatment, DeBarrows says. This is one of the most detrimental reasons why we need to break the stigma. People who are struggling with their mental health need professional help to feel better and thrive. The negative stigma leads many to avoid seeking help, which can result in deathly consequences.

Even when people do seek mental health services and treatment, the stigma still weighs down on them and affects their well-being. The American Psychiatric Association reports that self-stigma can make people feel less hopeful, and experience worse symptoms. Plus, they may be less likely to stick with treatment. Furthermore, research shows that self-stigma can impact recovery, with higher levels of self-stigma linked to less successful recovery.  

Other negative effects of the stigma include, but are not limited to:

“We need to change the dialogue so that the mysteries surrounding mental illness and therapy are drawn aside,” says Dr. Griffin. “People need to know that struggling with these issues is a normal part of life.”

How to Overcome and Break the Stigma

It’s clear that we need to make changes in order to break the stigmas surrounding mental health and therapy. But how exactly do we do that? Here are five ideas:

1. Talk About It

As simple as it sounds, just talking about mental health and therapy can help to break stigmas. According to a survey conducted by Grow Therapy, 47% of therapists said that open communication around mental health is the most important way to reduce the stigma.

However, opening up isn’t always easy. Be prepared that it might be uncomfortable at first, DeBarrows says. Just as with anything new, it might feel odd at first to speak openly about mental health or therapy, but you’ll feel more comfortable with it as time goes on. We talk freely and openly about physical health conditions, so why can’t the same go for mental health? You may choose to have a genuine conversation with a loved one, family member, friend, or whomever you wish.

Dr. Griffin suggests normalizing being open about your own struggles. You don’t have to tell everyone everything, but you never know who you will inspire or make a difference for. Plus, sharing your story can take a huge weight off your shoulders if you’ve been keeping it all bottled up.

On top of discussing mental health in general, you can also talk openly about therapy with your loved ones to challenge any negative views they might have. Going to therapy and seeking help from mental health professionals doesn’t need to be kept a secret. When you open up about your own therapy journey and help demystify treatment, you can inspire others to get help, too.

Remember, everything doesn’t have to be so serious. Although mental health is a serious matter, conversations surrounding it don’t have to be so heavy. DeBarrows says it may help to keep things light if that feels right for you. It can be as simple as saying, “Hey, I’ve been having a tough time, so I hit up a therapist,” she says. In many cases, opening up the dialogue is the first step to breaking stigmas.

All of this being said, you don’t have to disclose the fact that you’re going to therapy. It is your decision whether or not you’d like to share this information with your family or friends. 

2. Challenge Myths, Misconceptions, and Labels 

Dr. Griffin encourages you to challenge misconceptions about mental health or hurtful labels when you hear them. Language matters. “I challenge people when they misuse words like ‘crazy’ or ‘schizophrenic,’” says Dr. Griffin. “I explain how and why they’re using these words incorrectly, and how they harm people who are genuinely struggling with mental illness.” 

Use times like these as a chance to use your education about mental health to push for what is right so that going forward, the individual can be more sensitive with their language.

3. Be a Compassionate Ally

Regardless of if you have a mental health condition or not, you can be a compassionate ally to those who are struggling. If someone opens up to you, be an active listener. Be compassionate and non-judgemental. Ask them what you can do to help, and show them that you care. You may even share some of your own struggles too, to help them feel less alone. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also encourages you to “see the person, not the condition.” A mental health diagnosis does not define you or anyone else.

4. Be an Advocate

You have the power to make a difference. Dr. Griffin suggests reaching out to groups like NAMI for volunteer opportunities to see how you can help out. Other ideas include simply challenging negative stereotypes in a comment section online or letting local politicians know how you feel about funding and education for more mental health services, Dr. Griffin says. 

5. Address Self-Stigma

Self-stigma will only end up hurting you. On top of general public stigma, addressing your own internalized stigma and shame is a crucial part of healing. This is something you can talk about and work through in therapy. It may also help to connect with other people who have mental health disorders, such as through support groups, to help you remember you are not alone.

Ultimately, change won’t happen unless we make it happen. We all play an important role in breaking the negative stigmas surrounding mental health and therapy. Even just one little conversation can make a huge difference in someone’s life. 

Let’s work towards a future where mental health isn’t taboo, where people feel empowered to talk about mental health and get help if they need it. Change is necessary, and thankfully, it’s absolutely possible. 

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Ashley Laderer Ashley Laderer

Ashley Laderer is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York and Venice Beach. She has been a mental health advocate since 2016, when she first publicly wrote about her own battle with anxiety and depression. After hearing how others were impacted by her story, she decided to continue writing about anything and everything mental health. Since then, she’s been published in Teen Vogue, SELF, Refinery29, NYLON, VICE, Healthline, Insider, and more.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

x icon linked-in icon facebook icon instagram icon