What is Stigma

When we talk about stigma, we are talking about using negative labels to identify people with mental health difficulties. Stigma has it roots in fear and misunderstanding. Many of us hold negative opinions towards people with mental health difficulties because we do not understand the issues involved and because we are relying on myths and misconceptions.

Some of the common myths of mental health difficulties include:

  • People with mental health problems are violent and dangerous.
  • People with mental health problems are poor and less intelligent.
  • Mental health problems are caused by personal weakness.
  • Mental illness cannot be treated.

The effect of stigma

Stigma can be deeply hurtful and isolating, and is one of the most significant problems encountered by people with mental health difficulties. Learning to live with mental health problems is extremely difficult, particularly when someone experiences the prejudice caused by stigma. Stigma can be used to exclude and marginalize people. The prejudice and fear caused by stigma may even prevent people coming forward and seeking the help they need. It is necessary to confront biased social attitudes in order to reduce the discrimination and stigma of people who are living with mental health problems.

Stigma and the media

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), research over the last 30 years has convincingly demonstrated that the mass media are one of the most significant influences on belief systems. Since people with stigmatised illnesses do not usually announce themselves, people often form their attitudes through the news reports, films and television programmes they see. For that reason, the media have a significant role to play in reducing stigma towards people with mental health difficulties.

Examples of stigma in the media:

  • News stories often sensationalise crimes committed by people with metal health difficulties, even if the person’s mental health is of no relevance to the story.
  • The media often represents people with mental health problems as being violent, dangerous and unpredictable.
  • The use of words such as ‘schizo’, ‘psycho’, ‘lunatic’, and ‘nutter’ is insulting.

More information on reporting on mental health issues along with examples of stigmatising reporting can be found in the media information section of this website.

Tackling stigma

One in four people will be affected by mental health issues at some point in their lives. Even if you do not experience mental health problems personally, it is likely that one of your family members, friends, colleagues or neighbours will. This means that these issues impact everyone and we all have a role to play in helping to destigmatise mental health problems. You can also help tackle stigma by speaking up about how mental health problems are portrayed about by the media. The media has a key role to play in helping to challenge the myths and misconceptions that surround mental health issues and promoting greater awareness of mental health problems. By encouraging positive coverage of mental health issues and by challenging negative coverage, we can help reduce the fear and misunderstanding of mental heath issues. If you want to become involved in tackling stigma, sign up for headline media alerts.

Stigma and suicide

Suicide can be a painful and difficult subject to discuss, yet it affects us all. Suicide remains a taboo subject for many people. This stigma may act as a barrier to people discussing suicide openly. Stigma has lead to a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about suicide. It also prevents people in distress from seeking the help and support they need. Similarly, stigma can prevent people who have been bereaved by suicide from discussing their loss. Many of us do not know what to say to someone who has lost a loved one through suicide. People believe that discussing suicide can encourage it. This is not the case. Serious and open discussion of suicide helps de-stigmatise it and may make it easier for someone to open up and seek support. Discussing suicide can help dispel the myths and misinformation that surrounds it.

Suicide and the media

The way in which the media report on suicide can influence other suicides. Copy cat suicides account for about 6 per cent of all suicides and there is evidence to suggest that this behaviour can follow certain types of news reports and media portrayals of suicide. The media can also, often unintentionally, add to the stigma surrounding suicide and perpetuate the myths. The media has a responsibility to report on suicide in a responsible and sensitive way. We believe that the media has the potential to play a very important role in educating the public about suicide and encouraging people to seek support. More information about reporting on suicide can be found in the Media Guidelines section.