What is Stigma?

Stigma is a term that’s heavily associated with mental health — you’ve likely heard it before. In fact, the very first goal stated in Modern Health’s mission is to destigmatize mental health care. But what is stigma, and how does it affect our collective  perception of mental health? 

Stigma involves negative attitudes about mental health. While the conversation around mental health is improving and the topic is part of today’s zeitgeist, stigma is still common — and is a serious issue. Stigma may lead to delays in treatment and reduce the chances that a person will receive appropriate and adequate care during the ebbs and flows of mental health each of us will experience throughout our lives.

In this post, we will further define and examine stigma to promote awareness of its damaging consequences. 

Types of stigma 

Researchers have identified three different types of mental health stigma: 

  • Public stigma: Negative or discriminatory attitudes the public has about mental health.
  • Self-stigma: Negative attitudes, including internalized shame, that people have about their own mental health.
  • Institutional stigma: Involves government and private organizations intentionally or unintentionally limiting opportunities for people with mental health challenges. Examples include lower funding for research or fewer mental health services relative to other health care.


Sources of stigma
Stigma often arises due to a general lack of understanding or fear of mental health challenges. There are societal and cultural factors that feed into public and institutional stigma, including: 

  • Negative media portrayal of mental health
  • Mental health systems that encourage segregation of people facing serious mental health challenges 
  • Community rules for socially acceptable behavior
  • General intolerance

People who live with mental health challenges often experience thoughts or behaviors that lead to self-stigma and prevent them from seeking treatment, including: 

  • Fear of rejection
  • Feeling uncomfortable around others
  • Unwillingness to discuss mental health challenges with others
  • Fear of poor reflection on family 

The difference between stigma and a lack of resources
Some barriers to mental health services go beyond stigma and are more closely related to a lack of resources and access to care. For many, the importance of mental health and well-being is not part of their education, and as such, they don’t openly discuss these topics. People are not always biased — sometimes they lack understanding. 

Adequate access to mental health care is also a big issue and disproportionately affects marginalized communities. Some of the barriers preventing these populations from receiving care include: 

  • Systemic racism and discrimination
  • Insufficient insurance or financial means
  • A lack of culturally centered care 
  • Cultural differences in understanding mental health 
  • Mistrust of mental health care providers

Impacts of stigma
Stigma affects individuals with mental health challenges and the loved ones who support them, and the consequences can be severe. Stigma can fuel fear, anger, and intolerance toward people and mental health services. Harmful effects of stigma include: 

  • Reluctance to seek treatment or remain in treatment
  • Delayed treatment 
  • Social isolation 
  • Lowered psychological well-being
  • Strained relationships with friends and family 
  • Harassment, violence, or bullying
  • Reduced quality of life 
  • Shame and self-doubt
  • Difficulties in the workplace 

Promoting education on the topic is crucial to destigmatizing mental health everywhere. If you’d like to learn how you can support workforce well-being in your organization, you can find resources here or schedule a demo today.

Dr. Jessica Jackson, Global Clinical DEIB Manager

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