Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What Is Self-Stigma?

I was writing a post a few weeks ago when I ended up using a term I rarely think about: self-stigma. It’s not that it’s a foreign concept to me, but I don’t think I’m very comfortable using the term or understanding it well when it is used. That’s why I decided to do a little research to learn about self-stigma, how it shows up in our lives and how we can deal with it.

What is Self-Stigma?

It’s likely that you’ve heard about mental health stigma but as I’ve shared before this stigma can be perpetuated in a number of ways. While stigma is commonly seen as something that a person (or group of people) direct toward others, that’s not always the case. Self-stigma is one of the less talked about ways that the mental health stigma is circulated. As the name implies, self-stigma is when we’re applying the mental health stigma to our own situations. According to the American Psychiatric Association,

Self-stigma refers to the negative attitudes, including internalized shame, that people with mental illness have about their own condition.

American Psychiatric Association

Speaking from experience, there’s a level of internalized shame when it comes to experiencing mental health challenges. This isn’t necessarily because of our personal views, though that can be a contributing factor. Rather, it’s our response to the fact that socially and culturally, there is still a lot of shame and embarrassment around talking about mental health. There are many people who don’t mind talking about mental health at all – unless it’s about their own.

How Does It Show Up In Our Lives?

This is where self-stigma can be a little tricky. It’s easy to notice when people are saying or doing things that are disrespectful towards others, but the subtle ways that we can stigmatize ourselves can be hard to notice. It’s especially difficult when it concerns someone’s mental health. Self-stigma can come from anyone about anything, but I often notice it when people talk about how they deal with stressors.

We all have things we do when we’re tense, upset or stressed out. It’s human and in fact, everyone experiences it. But some who are experiencing mental health challenges will put themselves down for feeling things that everyone feels every now and then. They will feel like they came up short because of the way they reacted to something, and they’ll blame their mental illness for getting in the way of living their lives. The tendency to delegitimize our own mental health challenges is another common way that self-stigma is perpetuated.

What Can We Do About It?

It may sound a little on the nose, but having more conversations about mental health and stigma is a good way to help shrink it. Stigmas thrive when people are afraid to ask questions or dive further into a topic. They succeed when we accept things as they are and don’t look to change them. When we bring stigma out into the light (especially self-stigma), we’re calling it out for what it is.

Have you ever dealt with self-stigma, or seen someone stigmatize their own mental health challenges? Let me know in the comments below.


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