Fighting mental illness stigma and restoring equity on a community level

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One thing that keeps people from seeking mental health treatment is stigma. Stigma happens when people have negative or unfair beliefs, attitudes, or judgments about a group of people. The judgements are based on qualities the group has. For example, there are stigmas about mental illness, HIV/AIDS, religion, gender, and sexuality. These beliefs can lead to discrimination, prejudice, and unfair treatment.

Two types of mental health stigma

Stigma is created by people in every society and there are two types: Public and internalized. Public stigma happens, for example, when a person decides against seeking mental health treatment because they’re afraid someone will think they’re “crazy.”

Internalized stigma is more complicated and harder to overcome. For example, a woman who is suffering from symptoms of depression mistakes them for stress and begins to believe they’re just part of her personality.


Dr. Charlotte Brown, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Health and Community Systems at the University of Pittsburgh, studies stigma and its impact on mental health.

“We know from our research that public stigma — thankfully — doesn’t always stop people from seeking treatment for mental illnesses, such as depression,” she explains. “However, internalized stigma does negatively impact people’s attitudes toward treatment. The more internalized stigma a person has, the less likely they may be to seek help.”

The power of treating people where they live

Dr. Brown’s research shows that an effective way to fight stigma and achieve mental health equity in underserved communities is to make mental health resources available in neighborhoods through partnerships with non-mental health agencies. This includes social service organizations, co-ops, and clinics. In these familiar settings, mental health practitioners collaborate with community organizations — and everyone benefits.

For example, in an early collaboration with the Alma Illery Health Center in Homewood, Dr. Brown and her team approached Black women elders who agreed to receive training to be peer mental health educators. She explains, “The training included how to identify depression, how to approach people and talk to them non-judgmentally, how to safeguard their privacy, and how to inform them about services and encourage them to seek help.”

Dr. Brown’s research happened at a time when community-based collaboration was a new approach in Pittsburgh. “What we learned then was that when a trusted neighbor is concerned about your mental health, you’re more inclined to engage with that person. You respect them for their life experience, their relatability, and their genuine concern for you.”

Compassionate, humble peer support

Dr. Brown’s research has contributed to the understanding that successful community-based approaches can ease our country’s mental health crisis, particularly for underserved people — but only if the care they offer is authentic.

“Community-based mental health programs work well in helping people overcome stigma — but only when the work is done with compassion and humility,” she says. “When someone truly take an interest in you, you feel it, and are more open to the idea of getting help.”


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