Easing the stigma of mental illness and substance abuse
disorders needs a national effort that will involve health
agencies, as well as the criminal justice system, employers,
schools and media, according to a report from the National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS)
released in April.
The stigma of mental illness “is in the same category as racism
and sexism,” says Patrick W. Corrigan, PsyD, distinguished
professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology,
a co-author. “It permeates all of society and affects people at all
Over the past two decades, people have learned more about
mental illness and most believe treatment is effective. However,
the public is now more likely to believe that people with mental
illness are dangerous and unpredictable. Further, stigma
associated with substance abuse disorders is high, with people
tending to blame those who are ill for their habits.
Because of those prejudices and misunderstandings, many
people are afraid to go public with their illness or seek help. Of
the 28 million people who needed treatment for drug or alcohol
problems in 2013, fewer than 1 in 10 got help, the report says.
Untreated disorders led to an estimated $417 billion in annual
costs related to lost productivity, crime and health care.
“Not only did I have no esteem whatsoever, [stigma] left
me isolated and vulnerable to attack and ridicule,” says report
co-author Clarence Jordan, vice president of Wellness and
Recovery for Beacon Health Options who is in long-term
recovery for behavioral health challenges. “If I had come into
contact with people and agencies who saw [a mental health
problem] for what it is, I would have been inclined to get and
stay in help earlier.”
The NAS report recommends that:
• The Department of Health and Human Services take
the lead on the stigma reduction initiative. Although several
government agencies have anti-stigma programs, each has
limited resources and its own ideas about best practices.
• Research should explore how to design and test
communications programs and large-scale surveys tracking
• Leaders should gather input on initiatives from people
who have experienced mental illness.
• Efforts should include grassroots work since research
shows personal contact is more effective than education alone.
• Efforts should also include peer support services since
evidence suggests that people who use them are also more likely
to access other kinds of mental health care.
To read the report, go to www.nap.edu/catalog/23442/
— Stacy Lu
Destigmatizing mental illness needs a national push, report says