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Why People Don’t Seek Help for Mental Illness

Examining the Impact of Mental Health Stigma


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Awareness of mental illness and the need for treatment has been growing in recent years. Campaigns have been designed to raise awareness of depression, addiction, bipolar disorder, and suicide.

Celebrities have been open about their own mental health struggles. It’s great that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, for example, spoke out about his struggles with depression, to let people know it can happen to anyone and that depression is not a sign of weakness.

Despite this progress, many people who need help for a mental health issue don’t seek it.

1 in 5 people lives with mental illness. Did you read that? 1 in 5 !

A study by the World Health Organization,WHO, found that between 30 and 80 percent of people with mental health issues don’t seek treatment. This includes 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder, 55 percent of people with panic disorder, 56 percent of people with major depression, and a stunning 78 percent of people with alcohol use disorder.

What causes mental illness? There is no single cause for mental illness. A number of factors can contribute to the risk for mental illness, such as:

  • Early adverse life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse (for example, child abuse, sexual assault, witnessing violence, etc.)

  • Experiences related to other ongoing (chronic) medical conditions, such as cancer or diabetes

  • Biological factors or chemical imbalances in the brain

  • Use of alcohol or drugs

  • Having feelings of loneliness or isolation


What is a Stigma? (according to the Mayo Clinic)

Stigma is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be, or actually is, a disadvantage (a negative stereotype). Unfortunately, negative attitudes and beliefs toward people with mental health conditions are all too common.


Harmful effects of mental health stigma

Psychiary.org lists these harmful effects of mental health stigma: 1. Reluctance to seek help or treatment and less likely to stay with treatment 2. Social isolation 3. Lack of understanding by family, friends, coworkers, or others 4. Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing 5. Bullying, physical violence or harassment 6. Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover your mental illness treatment 7. The belief that you’ll never succeed at certain challenges or that you can’t improve your situation

Due to fear of being looked at differently or losing their jobs, livelihood, or the people they care about, estimates show as many as 80% of those afflicted won’t seek treatment. Mental health stigma, prejudice, and discrimination are still pervasive problems. The consequences of not seeking help can be dire. Consider roughly 1 in 5 will die by suicide, shorting the average lifespan by up to seventeen years.

Yet, mental health issues highs and lows associated with the condition are often treatable. But people don’t seek help.

People don’t feel comfortable reaching out to providers or talking to friends or family — They bear the weight of their illness alone. This needs to change.

Steps to cope with stigma

The Mayo Clinic offers these steps:

  • Get treatment. You may be reluctant to admit you need treatment. Don’t let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent you from seeking help. Treatment can provide relief by identifying what’s wrong and reducing symptoms that interfere with your work and personal life.

  • Don’t let stigma create self-doubt and shame. Stigma doesn’t just come from others. You may mistakenly believe that your condition is a sign of personal weakness or that you should be able to control it without help. Seeking counseling, educating yourself about your condition and connecting with others who have mental illness can help you gain self-esteem and overcome destructive self-judgment.

  • Don’t isolate yourself. If you have a mental illness, you may be reluctant to tell anyone about it. Your family, friends, clergy or members of your community can offer you support if they know about your mental illness. Reach out to people you trust for the compassion, support and understanding you need.

  • Don’t equate yourself with your illness. You are not an illness. So instead of saying “I’m bipolar,” say “I have bipolar disorder.” Instead of calling yourself “a schizophrenic,” say “I have schizophrenia.”

  • Join a support group. Some local and national groups, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), offer local programs and internet resources that help reduce stigma by educating people who have mental illness, their families and the general public. Some state and federal agencies and programs, such as those that focus on vocational rehabilitation and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), offer support for people with mental illness.

  • Get help at school. If you or your child has a mental illness that affects learning, find out what plans and programs might help. Discrimination against students because of a mental illness is against the law, and educators at primary, secondary and college levels are required to accommodate students as best they can. Talk to teachers, professors or administrators about the best approach and resources. If a teacher doesn’t know about a student’s disability, it can lead to discrimination, barriers to learning and poor grades.


Speak out against stigma.

Consider expressing your opinions at events, in letters to the editor or on the internet. It can help instill courage in others facing similar challenges and educate the public about mental illness. Others’ judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding rather than information based on facts. Learning to accept your condition and recognize what you need to do to treat it, seeking support, and helping educate others can make a big difference.


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