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5 Ways People Experience Internalized Mental Health Stigma

Those of us who live with mental illnesses are often exposed to stigmatizing beliefs and attitudes, which may affect the way we perceive and view ourselves. The level of stigma in which people may believe, internalize or endorse these negative beliefs and attitudes about themselves is called “internalized stigma” or “self-stigma.”

One way to define stigma is the rendering of shame or disapproval upon a person or group of people based on a certain differentiating attribute, such as a mental illness. For example, someone who struggles with low energy, problems with sleeping or motivation may be presumed as “lazy.” For people who live with heavily stigmatized and less commonly discussed mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder, they may be presumed as “scary or violent.”

When repeatedly encountering these assumptions, it can be hard to separate the self from them. Internalized stigma has been linked with lower self-esteem, social avoidance and decreased hope. Someone may struggle to reach out for help and support. It can also result in self-invalidation and complicate the treatment process.

It is important to provide a space to start conversation, express the impact of internalized stigma and support the mental health community. Education on mental health conditions and internalization may counter some of these detrimental impacts or reduce further assumptions from being made.

To further discuss this matter, we asked the mental health community to share one way they experienced or have felt an “internal mental health stigma.” Here are five overlapping themes the community described.

Note: Some responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

1. Internalized guilt and feeling like a burden.

“I frequently feel like I am a burden and a worry to my mum. I feel guilty that I can’t do better. I feel like I am inadequate/unworthy/defective. I have driven friends away because I am a drag. I am lazy and useless.” — Julie P.

“I have a deep-seated belief that I’m a burden on the people in my life, because of my mental illness and physical disability.” — Lulu M. B.

“I feel angry with myself and internalize my guilt over all kinds of situations. I judge myself for the things I’ve been through, just as others have judged me. I take responsibility for things others did to hurt me.” — Jasmine R.

“I’ve internalized feelings of being worthless, a burden, useless, ‘stupid,’ etc. I have a hard time with accepting help or even people who see my situation and acknowledge the struggles I face. I automatically minimize my issues to myself. I should be able to do it all.” — Tasha S. P.

“A few people in my life have been overwhelmed by me and don’t want anything to do with me anymore. It has brought back my belief about being a burden on people. I worked hard for so many years to change this belief, and now I’ve got it thrown back into my face by people I thought cared about me.” — Julia P.

2. Feeling like you’re not good enough, useless or unworthy

“I just feel like I’m not as good as others because of my mental illnesses. I feel like I’m a waste of space because I can no longer be a productive citizen. I feel guilty for needing public assistance.” — Roxanne B. C.

“I’ve always struggled with feeling like I’m good enough. I feel that because of my depression/anxiety/past trauma that I don’t deserve good things. On the other hand, I don’t know how to handle normalcy… like I don’t deserve a normal life or relationship because I’m not ‘normal.’” — Alysa B.

“I push people away and self-sabotage relationships. I was always told and I feel I will never be good enough, and I’m too damaged for someone to love me.” — Tash G.

3. Feeling unlovable.

”[I feel] that I’m unlovable because of my deep emotions, anxiety and ‘neediness.’ That my inner child need for love and affection is unacceptable. That if I have traits that are toxic to some sometimes, I am unlovable. Everything screams unlovable.” — Jana V.

“Sometimes I think that I won’t find a life partner because people who have ‘mental problems’ do not fit into a relationship. Because I am too big of a burden. And no matter how I turn it around, either I hate myself for the thought, what is bad, or I accept the thought, but that is also wrong.” — Stefan K.

“After I found out my ex-husband has searched for ‘why not to marry someone with depression,’ I absolutely felt like my depression was something embarrassing that I should have kept secret and pretended didn’t exist. That only served to drive my depression into a worse place, by making me withdraw from the world and not ask for help. I’m glad I finally realized that my mental health was not something shameful.” — Jill A.

4. Feeling like something is “wrong” with you for taking medication.

“I felt ashamed that I had to start taking medication. I still struggle with talking about having depression because I feel like people will judge me and think there’s something wrong with me, or that I have no reason to have depression.” — Devon H.

“Medication and therapy have helped me so much that I often convince myself that I’m not mentally ill — I’m just lazy and addicted to stimulants. I know this isn’t true logically, but a lifetime of people telling you to ‘just try harder, just do better, just focus, just do [insert thing I can’t do]’ really takes a toll and forces you to internalize that stigma.” — Lucy D.

“I really struggle with the fact that I take medication. I have no problems or apply any stigma to it being available and others taking them. I would never shame or tell someone not to. But even now after five years of my life being much smoother on them, I still struggle with the thought of taking them.” — Elaine T.

5. Self-gaslighting and self-invalidation.

“Self-gaslighting is a huge problem for me. [I] never validate my own thoughts/feelings.” — Anna G.

“General gaslighting myself and not trusting my feelings and choices based on those feelings.” — Ali S.

“I’m constantly stigmatizing myself even though I feel I have very understanding compassionate views outwardly to others who are suffering. Sometimes, I find myself chiding myself: ‘You’ve covered this, we’ve solved that one! Why are you still feeling so bad about that?’” – @merrycat

“I can’t have one good day without immediately believing I’ve been faking it forever.” – Aether C.

If some of these descriptions resonate or help you identify the impact of stigma, remember you are not alone in these experiences. There is a large mental health community out there who support you and are dedicated to reducing negative views of mental illnessThe
Mighty website
also has a Mental Health platform where you can share a Thought or Question with the mental health hashtags.

For further reading, here are 18 power ways the community identified to help reduce stigma. 

Photo by Inna Podolska on Unsplash