Stigma by association

Hey Insiders, welcome to the Well! Today I am going to be writing about stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma can be isolating not only for those with mental illness, but for their family members as well.

“Families say this is the only illness in the world where you don’t get a covered dish. People don’t call, don’t inquire. The cultural understanding of mental illness is either that it’s their fault for getting ill, or it’s the fault of their family.”

When someone is suffering with mental illness, there’s a good chance that there are several family members experiencing pain as well. Mental illness manifests in various diagnoses, each of which affects an individual’s day to day life. Family members can experience feelings such as grief, stigma, feelings of helplessness, anxiety, burnout and exhaustion.

A lack of support from friends and the community in general, as illustrated by the quote above, is rooted in the stigma associated with having a mental illness. Families can begin to feel abandoned and isolated as they work to support their ill family member (IFM). Stigma around mental illness isn’t a new phenomenon; in medieval times mental illness was thought to be the presence of demonic forces. While we’ve come a long way from writing off mental illness as evil spirits, we still have a long way to go.


What exactly constitutes stigma? Stigma is not necessarily a conscious decision made by society, however, stigmatization is reinforced through various venues such as media, stereotypes, attitudes, etcetera. Basically, stigma is a “distinctive characteristic that renders its bearer tainted, flawed, or inferior in the eyes of others.” Reinforcing and perpetuating stigma is as simple as avoiding, rejecting, discriminating, or engaging in any type of behavior that makes someone feel inferior because of a characteristic they possess.

Stigma by association, or SBA, is a term used to refer to the stigmatization of family members associated with someone suffering from mental illness:

“Eighteen percent of the relatives had at times thought that the patient would be better off dead, and ten percent had experienced suicidal thoughts. Stigma by association was greater in relatives experiencing mental health problems of their own and was unaffected by patient background characteristics… … Interventions are needed to reduce the negative effects of psychological factors related to stigma by association in relatives of people with mental illness.” –(click here to see study)

The findings of the study I’ve referenced above are unsettling. Without proper support, it can be easy to develop your own symptoms as you care for an IFM. As a result of the stigmatization of mental illness, families can feel as though they are alone in their battle to assist their IFM. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, provides an array of resources for individuals with mental illness and their family members. IFM or supporting family members can sign up for free online discussion groups by clicking here.

You can access a fact sheet that provides information about coping with a loved one’s mental illness. Resources do exist for family members. Depending on your location, there may even be free family support services. My internship site, the Mental Health Association, has an Intensive Family Support Service team (IFSS), that provides counseling, education, and advocacy to family members. Stigma’s effects become less powerful as we find communities of people we can relate to and who can offer validation and support through the difficult process of navigating mental illness.

If you have any experience relating to stigma and mental illness, I’d love to read about it in the comments. Thanks for stopping by the Well!

*My sources are available through the hyperlinks featured throughout the article.
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One Response to Stigma by association

  1. Great entry 🙂 The stigma of mental illness is strong but hopefully with more understanding and respect for the mentally ill we will all benefit.

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