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Everyone throws around the word stigma when it comes to mental illness, and many nonprofits have sprung up to combat that stigma. But what is stigma in regards to a mental illness, and why is it important to try and fight it? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines stigma as “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that society or group of people have about something.”

People with a mental illness are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Someone who is psychotic can’t make good decisions for their self and could easily end up as a victim. There are other ways that mentally ill people can, and do, end up in bad situations and I believe some of the reasons why is related to stigma.

The stigma regarding a severe mental illness is experienced by people who are diagnosed with that illness in several ways. First, when the person is given their diagnosis, their own beliefs about mental illness come into play. If they are a person who believes all schizophrenic people are dangerous, or talking to voices, or wearing tin-foil hats, then they have to accept that they are now part of that group.  The stigma they held about that illness now applies to them and for many people this is a big hit to their self-esteem.

Once the person, newly diagnosed, starts to settle into the reality of their illness, they will notice that society makes fun of and wrongly characterizes the mentally ill. These things are noticeable everywhere from social media, to the newspaper, to television, to magazines. Also, they will hear references to the mentally ill in derogatory ways. They will hear, nut job, loony, manic, schizo, etc. This further isolates them from their former life and chips away at their self-esteem.

Unrelated to stigma, but another thing that damages self-esteem is the actual episodes and what the person said and did while they were depressed, manic, psychotic, etc. Having to face people after you have suffered a break of some sort is embarrassing and can even be humiliating.

It is a problem that stigma contributes to the loss of self-esteem in people that are mentally ill. A low self-esteem can lead to other problems.  The kind of problems it leads to are drug and alcohol use, poor relationship choices, unhealthy lifestyle choices, and a whole range of other things that can, and do, complicate the treatment of a severe mental illness.

I want people with mental illnesses to get well. I want them to function at their highest level, and part of that has to do with having a healthy self-esteem.  People with mental illnesses need to feel worthy, creative, smart and valuable.  It is difficult to live with a severe mental illness, but it is even more difficult to live with it if you turn the stigma on yourself, or end up hating yourself because everything around you has worked together to destroy your self-esteem.

To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream…” Only my dream includes eliminating the beliefs that society has about the mentally ill, welcoming them in as full and valuable members of society, caring for them when necessary, and allowing them to grow to their full potential.

A dream can become reality if enough people dare to envision it. Let’s end the stigma of mental illness once and for all.