We have all witnessed the consequences of ignorant and discriminatory thinking in regard to many landmark issues. Mental health stigma is one such issue whose time has come. 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 that we 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 mental health stigma. 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 insurance parity, 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 or for loved ones. In many cases, however, the effect of stigma is so profound, even those who are financially secure can find themselves ravaged by cost and ultimately disconnected from the life in which they once flourished.

Stigma and cancer have a history that many may not remember. There was a time when the public thought that cancer was contagious and always fatal. Employers wouldn't hire you if you had cancer, families wouldn't allow their children to play at houses where someone was living with cancer. Insurance didn't properly cover cancer treatment or prevention. 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 we found out that there was a promise of wellness and recovery for cancer. The public found out that cancer wasn't contagious, research dollars were focused on a cure, insurance coverage improved for both treatment and prevention, and we are all 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 many-fold. Poverty is just one mitigating factor. Fields of employment, healthcare 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 reeducation efforts, must take place if we are ever to eradicate stigma.