Healthy New Jersey

New Jersey Governor's Council on Mental Health Stigma

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The Anatomy of Stigma

Consequences of Discrimination

Everyone has witnessed the consequences of ignorant and discriminatory thinking in regard to many landmark issues. Mental health stigma is one such issue. As we become educated and enlightened about mental illness, we will come to the realization that mental health stigma is as offensive and deplorable as any act of discrimination against any individual or group. Once we come to this realization, the stigma associated with mental illness will simply become unacceptable.

It is Important to Understand the Scope of Stigma's Impact

The impact of stigma is felt by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, peers and colleagues. Right now, at this very moment, either you or someone you know is suffering unnecessarily because of stigma against mental illnesses and individuals who have them. That said, it is critical that mental illness be seen clearly for what it is - a public health issue no different from any other.

People May Discriminate, but Mental Illness Does Not

Mental illness is prevalent across the lifespan and across the social, cultural, and religious continuum. Although individuals are affected regardless of their social and financial status, unfortunately, social and financial status can be a factor in the course of their illness. Because of the lack of true insurance parity in practice, the cost of treating mental illness is often unaffordable, leaving those with exceptional financial resources and elevated social positions able to obtain treatment for themselves and loved ones. In many cases, however, the effect of stigma is so profound, even those who are financially secure can find themselves disconnected from the life in which they once flourished.

Stigma and Cancer Have a History that Indicates our Mission Can Be Achieved

There was a time when the public thought that cancer was contagious and always fatal. Employers wouldn't hire individuals who had cancer, families wouldn't allow their children to play at houses where individuals were living with cancer. Insurance didn't properly cover cancer treatment or prevention services. Because of stigma and the related silence, research dollars were not prioritized for cancer. The silence also left a dearth of prevention information. Things changed when advocates fought the stigma, and the high potential for wellness and recovery from cancer was discovered. The public was taught that cancer wasn't contagious, research dollars were focused on discovering cures, insurance coverage improved for both clinical care and prevention, and everyone is educated about the symptoms of cancer and preventative lifestyle choices. In looking back to less enlightened times, we can now see that it wasn't necessarily the cancer that was fatal; it was the stigma. The same exists today with advocates tirelessly working to stop the mental health stigma that afflicts so many.

The Anatomy of Stigma Is Manifold

Poverty is just one mitigating factor. Fields of employment, health care and insurance, education, media and entertainment, law enforcement, military and veterans’ affairs, culture and religion, housing, and legislation fall under the cloud of mental health stigma. Each field presents its own very distinct form of discrimination, thus presenting a daunting range of challenges for those living with mental illness. Raising awareness and cultivating decision makers and others within the framework that comprises our communities is imperative. In addition, training and retraining, along with ongoing education and re-education efforts, must take place if stigma is ever to be eradicated.

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