Those who have social anxiety disorder worry intensely and immensely about whether or not they are being viewed badly by others (Anderson, Jeon, Blenner, Wiener, & Hope, 2015). An individual with the disorder struggles with tremendous anxiety over how she is being perceived by the people around her, but this struggle usually goes unseen by others, so receiving treatment for it potentially increases the visibility of her disorder (Anderson, Jeon, Blenner, Wiener, & Hope, 2015). She—like many others—may feel very uneasy with the notion of other people finding out about her anxiety disorder because she perceives the public stigma surrounding mental illness, especially since the media often associates an individual with a mental illness with violence and dangerousness (Anderson, Jeon, Blenner, Wiener, & Hope, 2015). She doesn’t want to risk the chance that the people around her might start to reject her because of her disorder and because of how they might view mental illness in general, so she decides not to go for treatment.
For more than 80% of people who have social anxiety disorder, this situation is reality (Anderson, Jeon, Blenner, Wiener, & Hope, 2015). They don’t get treatment because they don’t want it, and often one reason why they don’t want it is because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. They see the way people with mental illnesses are portrayed on the evening news, they see news anchors warning their viewers that having a mental illness makes a person violent and undesirable. Even though this is not at all the truth about people with mental illnesses, who would want to be linked to such terrible ideas? Many people with social anxiety disorder don’t want to be attached to such an adverse public mindset because they don’t want to be looked upon negatively, leading them to steer clear of treatments that could be of great aid. But the avoidance of treatment because of the stigma associated with mental illness surpasses those of us who have social anxiety disorder and extends to so many others of us who have different hardships with mental health, too. This is a problem experienced by people with all kinds of struggles and needs, and it is affecting not only their treatment but their relationships with others, and their self-perceptions and self-esteem.
A 2015 study by Kristin N. Anderson and colleagues examined the kinds of traits associated with social anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and the general idea of mental illness, as well as the social distance preferred by the participants from people with these disorders. A particularly interesting finding was that the participants wanted greater social distance from people who were embarrassed by their own illness (Anderson, Jeon, Blenner, Wiener, & Hope, 2015). I found this intriguing because people are embarrassed by their illness when they are sent the message that their illness is something to be embarrassed about, i.e. when they see stigma surrounding their illness. What we get then is a reciprocal relationship which is facilitated by the public stigma around mental illness: people see that their illness is frowned upon, leading them to feel embarrassed, causing people to avoid them because they are embarrassed. Though it is not entirely made clear as to why these participants wanted to stay away from people who were embarrassed about their mental illness, it is clear that people are embarrassed by their illness because their society tells them they should be embarrassed. But then, when they are embarrassed, they are rejected even more by that same society.
Stigma surrounding mental illness is making those who do have mental illnesses feel isolated and undeserving of treatment, reflecting an internalization of that public stigma. We need to educate people on mental illness so that they know better than to learn from the media that mental illness is bad. Just as well, Anderson and colleagues’ study showed that people who had past involvement with mental health treatment had less of a desire to maintain social distance from people with mental illnesses, demonstrating that people who have more experience or knowledge about mental illnesses are more open to engaging with others who have them (Anderson, Jeon, Blenner, Wiener, & Hope, 2015). There shouldn’t be a stigma surrounding mental illness: the traits associated with that stigma are misleading, and they can be detrimental to those who do have mental illnesses, so working to break down that stigma should be a number one priority.
Anderson, K.N., Jeon, A.B., Blenner, J.A., Wiener, R.L., & Hope, D.A. (2015). How People Evaluate Others with Social Anxiety Disorder: A Comparison to Depression and General Mental Illness Stigma. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85, 131-138.