eNewsletter - November 2019

Behavioral Health Partners




Fighting the Surge in Mental Health Stigma

Throughout history, the stigma attached to mental health issues has undergone quite a transformation. Centuries ago, mental health issues were synonymous with the possession of evil spirits, and patients were confined to asylums. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century when physicians began to identify psychiatric and psychological connections. 

 In recent years, we’ve witnessed a movement toward acceptance and an open dialogue about mental health, particularly on social media, as well as within families, workplaces and public institutions. And although the work that’s been done has helped to reduce some of the stigma attached to mental illness, recent current events challenge the progress that’s been made.

Why the new increase in mental health stigma? The rise in high-profile shootings and acts of violence in recent years has led to politicians commenting publicly in ways that draw connections between violence and mental health issues. These discussions have extended into the public consciousness as well.

However, research shows us that drawing an absolute connection between violence and mental health is an untrue depiction of the facts and it also promotes marginalization and challenges for those living with mental illness. This translates to barriers in access to care, reduction in the availability of quality care, and delays in seeking help.

So what is the perception and the reality of the connection between mental health issues and violence? A recent study from Indiana University looked at perceptions about violence and mental health issues and found that assumed associations between the two are rising, leading to public support for forcing mental health patients into treatment. Specifically, in 2018, more than 60 percent of those studied believed people with schizophrenia are dangerous to others and 30 percent believed people with depression are likely to be violent toward others.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the vast majority of people who live with a serious mental health issues are not violent and, in contrast, are actually more likely to be victims of violent crime than to commit it. In fact, the 2015 MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment study found that only 1 percent of gun violence against others was committed by those with a serious mental illness.

Research suggests that too much attention is focused on a perpetrator’s diagnosis in lieu of analyzing factors such as socioeconomic status or substance abuse history, which may play more significant roles in determining violent tendencies.

What can we do as mental health professionals? As health providers, we’re ideally positioned to identify opportunities to fight against mental illness stigma for our patient population. Beyond our daily efforts to encourage open dialogue, appropriate language usage, and patient compassion and empowerment, there are additional ways we can make a positive impact on the reduction of mental illness stigma, such as:

  • Find ways to get involved in your community to increase education and promote a better understanding of mental health concerns among people of all ages.
  • Advocate on behalf of those with mental illness by talking to your legislators, furthering their education and sharing your support for access to quality mental healthcare.
  • Partner with the public in support of consumer health-related causes, events and legislation, by getting involved either in person or online.

As mental health professionals, advocacy and staying up to date on mental health public policy and legislation is an essential way to continue to make a difference in the lives of our patients.  There is no one better suited to advocate for mental health reform than those working with mental health patients. 

A good resource is the Action Center on the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) website. Here you can view current federal and state legislation and add your name in support of many critical mental health public policy initiatives. One current initiative in the Senate is S. 1985, the Lower Health Care Costs Act of 2019, which is a bipartisan bill aimed at strengthening mental health and addiction parity laws, among other things. Consider adding your name to the support of this legislation.   

More information on S. 1985, the Lower Health Care Costs Act of 2019


Steadman et al. Psychiatric Services 66, pp. 1238 – 1241, 2015: MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study).