This Is What Mental Illness Is and Why We Need to Stop Stigmatizing It

One out of five Americans lives with a mental health disorder, so the likelihood that the average citizen knows someone who has some form of mental illness is relatively high. Despite the startling number, mental illness is still one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized diseases within society. Due to the stigma associated with it, people who need help don't get it for a variety of reasons, like underfunded public health research, shame and embarrassment, or a general lack of mental health literacy. 

Read more: Here's Why We Need Mental Health Action — Not Mental Health Awareness

What is mental illness? According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit organization that focuses on mental health education and advocacy, "A mental illness is a condition that impacts a person's thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis." 


The spectrum of mental illnesses is vast and includes bipolar disorder, eating disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, personality disorders and more. Depression, an often crippling mental illness that can sometimes lead to suicide, is one of the leading contributors toward global mental health disability, and affects more than 350 million people worldwide. Ultimately, mental illnesses can have devastating effects on the mind, changing "a person's thinking, feelings or behavior (or all three), and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning," according to the National Institutes of Health.

Mental illness can affect a person's physical being, as well. "There's a strong connection between our mental health and our heart health," Dr. Valerie Taylor, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, wrote for the Toronto Star. "Conditions related to weight management and cardiovascular health — obesity, diabetes, heart disease — are high among people with mental disorders."

"In fact, patients suffering from depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia have an average life expectancy that's 10 to 15 years shorter than the rest of the population," Dr. Taylor, who is also chief of general and health system psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, continued. 


Why is there a stigma associated with mental illness? When someone who has a mental illness is stereotyped to behave a certain way, that person faces a "stigma" that sets them apart from the rest of society. The stigma placed on those who have mental illnesses opens the door to discriminatory behavior and attitudes by others, and forces some with mental illness into social isolation. For example, people living with mental illness are often unable to access affordable health care, because they might be denied employment opportunities due to the stigma associated with their mental illness. 

"Frequently, people with mental disabilities encounter restrictions in the exercise of their political and civil rights, and in their ability to participate in public affairs," according to the World Health Organization. "They also are restricted in their ability to access essential health and social care, including emergency relief services. Most people with mental disabilities face disproportionate barriers in attending school and finding employment." When one in four people will be affected by mental disorders worldwide, stereotyping people with mental illnesses is unfair and potentially dangerous.

For many, the mental health stigma can be deadly. "As a result of all these factors, people with mental disability are much more likely to experience disability and die prematurely, compared with the general population," the World Health Organization stated. Eight million people with mental illnesses die each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

According to NPR, a 2014 study published in the journal Memory & Cognition found that people were less likely to interact with someone that has a mental health disorder if they thought they could "catch" their disease. It's time to stop the stereotyping.


However, it's not like mental illness is contagious like the common cold. The exact causes of mental illnesses are still unclear, but can be attributed to a variety of biological and environmental factors. According to the Mayo Clinic, mental illness is more likely to appear in people who have relatives that also have a mental illness. In addition, the Mayo Clinic also found brain chemistry and environmental exposures to be factors that lead to mental illness.

Mental illnesses are not contagious in the same way that a common cold would be.  Despite this fact, people with mental disorders are still widely stigmatized.