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The Effect of Stigma Against People Diagnosed with Mental Illness

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“Quirky” or “mentally ill”? Why should the fact of a diagnosis define how we are perceived?

There is nothing more horrifying than the shift in perception and trust that can happen when you reveal a mental health diagnosis – nothing worse than being friends with a family for six or seven years, spending time with their kids, being considered a valued family friend by people who assume you to be “normal” or perhaps “eccentric,” and then, when you reveal your diagnosis, hearing them say “we just don’t feel comfortable with you playing with our children.” From inside that diagnosis, it’s incomprehensible that a visit to the therapist’s couch converts you from a “trusted family friend” to a “dangerous person” after a long history of positive relationship!

Or perhaps it’s worse to be part of a faith community that proclaims its inclusivity and then, on learning your diagnosis, asserts that you’re “demon-possessed” – offering grace by saying that only after you complete THEIR deliverance program will you once again be welcome.

Or maybe the worst is the next faith community who thinks they know diagnoses and labels, who insists you have something you don’t.  Why? Someone in their family has it, and it’s the closest terrifying thing they can think of. At any given moment, you might lapse into mayhem.

Or the workplace that treats you well, gives you good evaluations, and sees you as a valuable team member…until you file a sexual harassment charge and suddenly they can’t look past the stamp of your diagnosis and “don’t know how to trust what you say.”

Maybe it’s your own family, trying to put the fun back in dysfunctional by pointing at you and saying, “How are your delusions?” They want to show they’re cool with your experience, but by laughing it away, they disregard the possibility that there might be some truth in what they’re labeling as delusions.

The stigma of mental illness lets people without (or who are unable to own) a diagnosis:

  • Take the diagnosed person seriously until they want a reason not to.
  • Believe that they are better than, healthier than, and more entitled to things than the diagnosed person.
  • Avoid looking at their own dysregulation and bad behavior.
  • Feel it is right to control the diagnosed person’s behavior to manage their (often irrational) fear.
  • Feel free to mock, mimic, and make fun of people with diagnoses in the media or in person (something abhorrent when pointed at other populations).
  • Treat people as if they have a contagious disease (the biological model) or are stupid (the learned model).
  • Assert that “people like that” should be “locked up”.

Remember how long it took for people of color to even begin to be taken seriously? Or people who were of different gender orientation and sexual identities, and people with visible disabilities?

So how does this make sense, that without knowledge of a diagnosis, others take you seriously, and consider you a peaceful person, and with knowledge of a diagnosis, others dismiss you and consider you a high risk for violence against others—in spite of all the evidence and facts?

I’d love to hear your ideas. Meanwhile, I’m building new relationships with people who appreciate me for all that I am, including quirky.

Please join me on Facebook to discuss this thing some people call “mental illness”.

Image: Mary Anne Enriquez via Compfight

The Effect of Stigma Against People Diagnosed with Mental Illness

Elizabeth Power, M.Ed.

Elizabeth Power, M.Ed., CEO of EPower & Associates, Inc. is a sought-after speaker, facilitator, teacher, and consultant. Her firm's specialty is helping organizations make and manage change through learning and doing. Her mastery of diverse interests and innovation has been recognized worldwide through awards and publications across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Her firm provides services in the mental health and disability communities and to early childhood educators, families, parents and teachers.

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APA Reference
Power, E. (2014). The Effect of Stigma Against People Diagnosed with Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Dec 2014
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