Unpacking Stigma

Stigma is amazingly powerful.

We know that the stigma surrounding mental illnesses keeps a huge number of people from seeking treatment. Stigma also keeps people from sharing their stories with others in their churches, their workplaces and their neighborhoods. As a result, people with mental illnesses frequently don’t get the support we offer freely to people in our church communities who are ill with other types of illnesses. Unless your congregation is way outside the norm, you probably don’t include people with mental illnesses in your prayers for healing. You probably don’t send them get-well cards, and you probably don’t bring them casseroles when they return home after a hospitalization.

There is nothing rational about this type of stigma. Our brains, like our other organs, can be beset with problems that cause them to function less than optimally. Like heart disease and diabetes (a pancreas disorder), brain disorders typically can be managed effectively with some combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes. But a person with mental illnesses has to overcome his or her fear of being stigmatized in order to seek treatment and find a path to recovery.

Before we can uproot the pervasive stigma in our culture, we need to understand the basics: Exactly how do you define stigma? What are its components? What are the primary effects of stigma? And most importantly, what strategies and tactics are most effective in reducing stigma?

These are the topics covered in a report produced by the Scattergood Foundation called Stigma and Behavioral Health. The report is well researched and thoroughly backed by an impressive list of academic studies and articles. While it does not specifically address faith communities, we can certainly take their recommendations and put them to work in our congregations.

Need some help figuring out how to apply stigma reduction techniques to your church? Explore the resources available on the INMI website and the Mental Health Ministries website. And if you’d like advice about your specific church’s situation, contact us at [email protected]

Joanne Kelly

INMI cofounder and vice chair

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.