How Psychiatric Nursing is Fighting the Mental Health Stigma

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Individuals who live with mental illness face challenges completing daily activities of living, while simultaneously enduring prejudices and stereotypes that come from society. These circumstances cause unnecessary and unfair difficulties for those who are diagnosed with mental illness in acquiring and maintaining basic living needs and wants such as:

● Employment
● Housing
● Medical services
● Physical health
● Social connections

While many researchers, such as Patrick Corrigan and Amy Watson of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Chicago Consortium, have studied mental illness, they have only recently started to examine the stigma that is associated with the condition. However, studies related to prejudice and stereotyping against minority groups have given researchers a head start on delving into stigma research. Investigations by researchers have revealed that many complex factors encompass the causes and effects of stigma as it relates to mental illness.

Understanding Mental Health Stigma

The stigma of mental illness largely manifests itself in two distinctive ways. [1] Care providers call the negative concepts that society might assign to the condition ‘public stigma,’ while self-stigma describes what individuals afflicted with the disease think of themselves.

Mental health professionals describe the reactions that result from these two viewpoints as discrimination, prejudices, and stereotypes. Stereotypes encompass a social component that involves sharing assumed opinions among a population. Prejudiced individuals openly endorse and encourage stereotypes. Prejudiced behavior can ultimately lead to discriminatory acts that can culminate in hatred, unfairness, and sometimes violence.

Different Cultures, Different Viewpoints

Studies reinforce the notion that many consumers and health specialists in both the U.S. and Western European hold stigmatized beliefs about individuals diagnosed with mental illness. In Asia and Africa, the population generally does not view those afflicted with mental health symptoms negatively. In these regions, people do not differentiate between mental and physical health issues.

While negative social stigmas do attach to some illnesses in Asia and Africa, this typically occurs when dealing with intractable health conditions. Islamic cultures largely represent a notable exception. In this population, negative stigmas associated with mental illnesses occur rarely, if at all.

The Complexities of Stigma

Common sense might dictate that individuals who suffer from self-stigma internalize their negative opinions after repeated exposure from external sources. These individuals frequently suffer from diminished confidence, hopelessness, and low self-esteem.

Frequent exposure to prejudiced behavior does deteriorate one’s self-image. However, evidence provided in reports such as “Individual strategies for coping with the stigma of severe mental illness” and “Social Stigma: the psychology of marked relationships” suggests that patients who frequently experience prejudice turn their anger toward their detractors. As a result, mental health patients who are emotionally injured commonly participate more actively in their recoveries and lobby more strongly for improved services. This circumstance creates a paradox wherein the chastised individual focuses their righteous anger in a positive manner. However, researchers have yet to consider this factor when conducting studies that seek to identify and resolve why Western consumers retain their stigmatized views of the mentally ill.

Ways to Incite Change

Scientists identify the concept of ‘group protests’ as an effective way to reverse stereotypical behaviors toward the mentally ill. Protests serve a dual function. They encourage scrutiny that forces the media to provide accurate representations about those who suffer from the condition. The protests also work to educate the public about the harm in believing false assumptions regarding mental illness. Researchers believe that past protests have influenced the media and the public in a positive way. Some studies suggest that protests have successfully caused many individuals to rethink how they view mental illness. Alternatively, educators can use empirical evidence to sway opinions with logic rather than with emotion.

Helping Mental Health Clients Help Themselves

Nurses can challenge the stereotypes that label mental health patients. [2] To accomplish this, nurse educators teach students about the tools and techniques that can aid those who suffer from mental illness these might include:

● Client safety planning
● Cognitive behavioral therapy
● Coping skills training
● Group therapy
● Mental health evaluations

Mental health nurses can use these kinds of tools to help patients identify their harmful behaviors, understand how their harmful behavior relates to trauma, and validate their feelings regarding traumatic experiences.

Influencing Public Opinion About Mental Health

Nurses hold a trusted role in society and can use that influence to change public perception about mental illness. [3] This is especially critical in Westernized cultures, where both the general public and mental health care providers may hold strong stigmatized views about the mentally ill. These stubborn perceptions hinder efforts to assist patients in their recovery, and in their pursuit to lead the most satisfying and productive lives possible.

Public health campaigns typically aim to improve how the public views mental illnesses while completely disregarding how medical professionals view patients diagnosed with the condition. Researchers in Africa, Asia, and Europe have started to investigate this issue and have built a considerable catalog of information on the topic. The studies corroborate the belief that medical professionals who work in Westernized societies hold stereotypical views about their mental health clients. However, this circumstance is destined to change as educators train a new generation of nursing professionals in the U.S. about mental health literacy, the unique challenges that are faced by the mentally ill, and about the dignity of mentally ill individuals.

Studies regarding the stigmatized perceptions among those who treat mental illnesses have sparked change. There is a transition away from the theoretical constructs about appropriate conduct, to a new paradigm that emphasizes treating mental illness with the same empathy applied to physical conditions. However, this relatively new study and its data must compete with many years of established societal disrespect toward those diagnosed with mental health symptoms. In the meantime, change must begin and it should start with the caregivers of the mentally ill. They can advocate and expertly deliver the aid to help those in their charge manage and recover from their condition.

Learn More

Psychiatric Mental Health nurse practitioners play a significant role in the modern health care system. Our online Master of Science in Nursing with a focus on Psychiatric Mental Health program can help you develop your communication and therapeutic skills so you can assess, diagnose, manage, and treat mental illness in a variety of populations. It also prepares RNs to sit for the ANCC PMH-ANP exam upon graduation to immediately pursue a proactive and rewarding career as a psychiatric mental health Nurse Practitioner.

Recommended Readings:

Best Practices to Promote Cultural Awareness
How Nurse Practitioners Can Become Community Advocates


[1] US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health
[2] Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
[3] Journal of Nursing and Care