Internalized Stigma of Mental Illness Affects Recovery

April 12, 2012 Natasha Tracy

Stigma is something that can be seen outwardly like when a family member avoids you due to your depression or you’re passed over for a promotion because your coworkers discovered you’re diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s also seen in public perceptions as noted in the Surgeon’s General report where 60% of people felt like people with schizophrenia behaved violently.

But the biggest danger of mental health stigma is when it’s felt inwardly. Because no matter how unfairly people treat you ourwardly, it’s nothing compared to the effects of feeling the stigma inside.

Stigma and Mental Illness

Mental illness was once thought of as demonic possession, but then, most things were. After that period passed, mental illness was thought of as a person failing and of immoral character and disobedience of moral law.

And although we have come a long way from these beliefs, more than one-in-three people still believe that mental illnesses are completely different from physical illnesses and more than one-in-two believe that avoiding someone with a mental illness is not a form of discrimination.

Feeling Mental Illness Stigma

And not only do these beliefs creep into the mind’s of people with a mental illness due to outward behavior, but some of the people who hold those beliefs are people with a mental illness themselves! Being diagnosed doesn’t protect you from being stigmatized nor feeling stigma about your own illness.

We Have to Beat Stigma

But I can tell you, from the bottom of my extremely well-researched heart that stigma is unfair and public perceptions are wrong. People with a mental illness are just people with an illness. We do not deserve discrimination any more than anyone else does.

And if my words don’t convince you, consider this. People with greater internalized stigma have lower self-esteem, lower social functioning and worse recovery outcomes. That should be enough to motivate you to get rid of the poison that you don’t deserve. Stigma, by the way, tends to be less in people who accept a medical cause of mental illness as well as a medical treatment.

Because in the end, people can stigmatize you all they want – but you have the power not to take it on and not to let it affect your recovery.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2012, April 12). Internalized Stigma of Mental Illness Affects Recovery, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 29 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

June, 11 2016 at 10:09 pm

hi there my wife has just been admitted to hospital a month ago with a bi polar disorder leaving me to pick up the peices of 2 years of hell and to try and rebuild a future for my 8 year old daughter truth be told i hope she never gets out she lied about me to everyone making me out to be horrible person telling me im responsable for everything that she had been doing .i had been wondering for a long time why people were looking funny at me almost started to believe that i was horrible myself my saving grace was a honest decent person who i respected told me i was the most decent person he had ever met and that he had been watching what was giong on for some time he told me he was slowly watching me fall apart i lost four stone in four month(she didnt lose any weight)worked every day looked after my daughter every evening while being abused on a daily basis. i still find it hard to believe that a person can try and destroy someone they say they love im very sorry but this is not the person i met 10 years ago my family are saying stick with her but why should my childs life be destroyed by by an unfeeling uncaring abusive self centered person they say oh poor girl what about the familys that are destroyed by their actions no doctors for us no help for us just people looking saying he must have done that to her; well i would just like to add that some of my neighbours have tried to talk to me again i told them to go away dont look at me or talk to me ever TIRED OF BEING THE VICTIM of sombody elses problem am i wrong to say ive had enough i had a member of my partners family come to help he left after 2 days 2years for me i feel suicidal depressed embarrased but i have to get up out of bed and make a life for my child work every day who helps us (me i have just to keep going while im falling part with stress ) i have realized that people with bi polar only think of them selves she has tried to destroy me even went to police said i assulted her ha ha ha i was to embarrased to tell the police it was me assulted what a wonderfull life with some one with bi polar lie after lie after lie soon to be bye bye bye

September, 29 2015 at 2:50 pm

I agree with Renita. I have been hospitalized multiple times and the personal power part is what tore my soul apart. I am still trying to recover my sense of self and personal power that belongs to me. It is difficult after being on medications I dont know what is myself and what can be changed. I dont know myself. It is like I manage a different self and persona because I have been rejected so many times. I have been welcomed so many times too but the aftermath and catching a glimpse of what is wrong is merely a direction, it doesn't provide an assured path. There is so much to deal with when you see yourself different than the way other people perceive you. And also when people see exactly the way you see you is sometimes the worst of all. I also recognize that I went through a period of time exhibiting behaviors that I would not normally exhibit. It is a catch 22 trying to make a living good enough to take care of yourself because as soon as something isn't so good everyone just leaves or gets aggressive for what is lacking and the depression/isolation of fighting/self-protection gets worse. I am terrified of settling down because the anxiety of knowing one wrong step and my entire life falls apart. It doesn't seem worth the effort. Too much is at risk. I am heartbroken at the way I feel I have to protect myself and insulate myself just trying to protect what I dont even have. I dont know how to know myself and share 'myself' because my memory and experiences are all intertwined with good and bad. It really depends on the person and then people and relationships fail.

November, 9 2014 at 6:39 am

Sorry I made a mistake is my previous post. During my very first hospital stay I was overmedicated with Haldol which actually resulted in a life threatening condition called Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome (not Tardive D... as previously stated). It scared the crap out of me. Currently I am on a combination of Lamictal & Abilify (low doses) for Bipolar 1 maintenance because I refuse to use Lithium (too many bad side effects and it doesn't even come close to touching my depression!). I am cautiously trusting my current pdoc that I won't end up eventually with the same side effects that I had with Haldol back in 1995. Intellectually speaking I know I shouldn't feel bad about myself for having a brain disorder but emotionally speaking due to the public perception of mental illness I can't help but feel like a loser at times.

November, 8 2014 at 6:49 pm

As someone who was molested and belittled by a step parent from the age of 9 I know what it's like to be burdened with unmerited shame and a profound loss of trust and self esteem, especially after an adoptive mother who had also been molested as a child failed to support me when I finally summoned up the courage to tell her about it Add to that an eating disorder by age 16 (because I was told I was not worthy of heathy love because I was too fat). My self hatred was complete or so I thought. Then at age 33 my first involuntary hospitalization in a psyc ward where the power to defend myself was brutally ripped away from me. I was so over medicated with haledol for nothing more than a severe depression and anxiety that I couldn't walk (due to tardive dyskenisia). I was unable to think clearly and barely felt anything at all except extremely tired on this medication. I wasn't manic, I was scared shitless!!! I was severely depressed and anxious about how I was being treated. I didn't need my dopamine levels surpressed any further. In addition to that, being woken up every couple of hours and grilled over and over again as to whether I felt suicidal. I knew instinctively that If I had said yes to that question things wouldv'e gotten worse for me very quickly, so I lied. I did indeed feel suicidal but NOT before entering the hospital! Logically speaking why wouldn't a person feel that way when their personal power is stolen out from under them. How could you not feel anything but hopeless and powerless to the point of wishing death would come quickly. It's doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why the suicide rate is so high even after being discharged. I vowed NEVER to be put in a situation like that again yet I was hosptialized 2 more times over a 15 year period before finally being diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. I had been so traumatized by these events that I felt like a victim of PTSD! Also feeling like a lab rat while a pdoc stumbled to find the right combo of meds and the result being a huge debilitating weight gain, it's no wonder why I felt such betrayal, shame & embarrassment that I internalized it as stigma. External stigma is bad enough but when it comes from within it can be crippling!!! I am now cautiously learning to climb out of that self imposed prison as I slowly recover what was taken from me. I could care less at this point what other people think or feel about me. I am more concerned about my own opinion & how that's affected me. Very slowly I AM learning to believe in MYSELF which in turn makes me stronger to deal with the external stuff

July, 7 2013 at 10:14 pm

I think self-stigmatizing is a common attitude that almost everyone with a mental illness feels. As much as it makes sense to simply accept it right away and get on with life, there is a process to get to that point. I worked with the disabled once upon a time. I met this kid, a really bright kid, musically talented and on track to Juliards - before a freak accident, that is. Now, he is paralyzed from the neck down. Our conversation initially started off positively, and intellectually, he knew he had to accept his current situation. He started telling me how he could still read music, and in his mind, still knew how to play, but he couldn't physically do it anymore...he trailed off, then broke down. He started throwing things around and demanded that we call his parents to pick him up. He kept saying over and over how he DID NOT WANT TO BE THERE. I know being there around others who were disabled, and knowing that most would probably not improve was just too much for him. I could say that he is simply immature and dismiss him, but that would not acknowledge that he was grieving.
I think it is the same for anyone who is newly diagnosed. They DON'T WANT TO BE HERE - dealing with the fallout of something they couldn't control, dealing with being stigmatized, dealing with medication, appointments, a change in their life that they did not choose.
This is not meant to be negative, but rather to remind ourselves that we have the right to feel the way we want to about an illness that sucks. If I want to hate it, I will until at some point I can honestly say that I am okay with it. And you know what? Being okay with it ebbs and flows. So you may continually hear me say how much I hate it.
I just want to say if YOU are one of those people who cannot stand up and be proud of who you are right now, I understand. I will not tell you to accept something if you are not ready to. I can't. I don't know what it will take for you to get to that place, nor do I fully know what it is about your experience that makes it particularly difficult, but I truly understand.

Dr Musli Ferati
April, 14 2012 at 10:36 pm

Mental health state implies both a satisfying life functioning and good emotional feeling at any time and everywhere. The second one issue indicates many subjective and contradictory massages. Therefore it is important to have a real perception on psychiatric patient'views on personal psychological experiences,that perform overall internal emotional life. In this direction, your suggestion on acceptance and maintenance of psychiatric treatment, from patient and its close relatives, is of fundamental relevance.Mental health exhibits more challenges, because it is still many social stigma that deteriorate the process of appropriate recovering of respective mental disorder.These remarks should be of great surveillance from psychiatrist and others mental health staff that manage the treatment of mental illnesses.

April, 14 2012 at 12:22 pm

I'm not really ashamed of having a mood disorder per say- I'm ashamed that I am less reliable, that I haven't always been able to function, that I haven't done the things in my life that I would have liked to do. And if I were to use my mood disorder as an excuse, that would just increase the stigma that people with bipolar are unreliable. But if people don't know that about me, then my life doesn't make sense, either.

April, 13 2012 at 8:22 pm

Amelia, I can completely relate to your experience. I'm still dealing with the self-stigmatization. I know that I would never judge others like I judge myself, yet it still hurts a lot of the time. Even with a period with less episodes, I'm still feeling it; I'm working on it through therapy. Hopefully I can stop one day.

Amelia Mims
April, 13 2012 at 9:04 am

I love your realism, Rhonda. I believe we'll see the end of stigma against mental health within 10 years. Maybe optimistic, but alot of people are mobilizing this movement.

Rhonda Cavell
April, 13 2012 at 4:15 am

I agree with all you say but no matter how high your self-esteem and compliance with treatment and good recovery outcomes, it still hurts when others avoid you or make hurtful comments. I tend to be optimistic and believe things are surely improving in the world regarding stigma. Maybe one day and I don't believe I'm being negative, only realistic.

April, 12 2012 at 8:24 am

During recovery from a very recent episode, I discovered I was actually stigmatizing myself by trapping myself under a huge burden of shame for having Bipolar Disorder. This was shocking to me, I am an intelligent and kind woman who would never intentionally hurt or stigmatize another, why the heck was I doing it to myself?! When I thought it through logically (once the meds kicked in), it didn't make any sense to feel ashamed for something I was born with. The freedom from the weight of this 7-year burden of shame has been so freeing, I now feel motivated to get involved and speak up. Thank you for another highly-relevant, accurate, inspiring post, Natasha.

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