What is stigma?

Stigma means a negative belief about a particular situation, quality, or person. In the case of stigma around mental illness, it’s the prejudiced and negative views held by people who don’t understand mental illness and it arises out of fear of difference or otherness. You might hear people use negative words like ‘psycho’, ‘head case’, ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’, or they may make you feel embarrassed or bad that your parent is ill.

Below, two young carers explain what stigma means to them.



Mental illness is often seen as a failure or fault of the person. In some societies, it’s believed to be the result of  past mistakes — similar to a curse. Sometimes people with a mental illness are treated in less considerate or caring ways than those who have a physical illnesses. But, just like a physical illness, mental illness is not the fault of the person who has it.

People also have a tendency to fear the unfamiliar, and the behaviour of someone with a mental illness might be seen as unpredictable or difficult to handle.

Negative treatment can mean that people with a mental illness don’t feel like they belong and may stay away from others who might judge them. Throughout history, people have formed groups for safety and protection, so it makes perfect sense to want to fit into a group where there is more protection. We often try to be the ‘same’ as the others. However, if we are different, through no fault of our own, we might feel lonely, fearful, anxious and ashamed.

In our distant past, we lived in tight communities isolated from one another where we shared beliefs, goods and genetics. As technology has allowed us to communicate and travel, we now come into contact with people of different races, religions and cultures. We are thrown into relationships with people who are ‘not like us,’ and our instinct as humans is to defend what is familiar and fear what is different; this is the basis of stigma and shame.

There is an ownership and a choice about this. We might not be able to change the thing that makes us different but we can change how we react to this experience in ourselves, and how we protect ourselves.

If you are concerned about how you or your parent is being treated, it is important to seek support from friends, family and other people such as teachers or other professionals who might be working with you or your family. You need the opportunity to talk about how things are for you, and be with people who can support you in managing the stigma you may feel. This can also help you to decide what to do when you experience stigma from other people. Find out more about dealing with negative views.

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