2022 Equity Challenge Day 9: The Negative Light on Mental Illness

“Sadly, too often, the stigma around mental health prevents people who need help from seeking it. But that simply doesn’t make any sense. Whether an illness affects your heart, your arm or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there shouldn’t be any distinction…We should make it clear that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of strength – and we should ensure that people can get the treatment they need.”

Michelle Obama

lawyer, writer, mother, former first lady, role model and advocate

When you think of a person with a mental illness, what or who do you think of? Do you immediately think of positive aspects, like creativity and understanding? Or maybe your first thoughts are apprehensive and unsafe. These negative attitudes towards people with mental illness are called stigmas

Stigmas can apply towards oneself, about a stranger or friend or at an institutional level. 

The American Psychiatry Association identifies three types of mental health stigmas: 

  • Public stigma involves the negative or discriminatory attitudes that others have about mental illness. 
  • Self-stigma refers to the negative attitudes, including internalized shame, that people with mental illness have about their own condition. 
  • Institutional stigma is more systemic, involving policies of government and private organizations that intentionally or unintentionally limit opportunities for people with mental illness. Examples include lower funding for mental illness research or fewer mental health services relative to other health care. 

Stigma can lead to discrimination. For example, a property owner may hold a negative stigma about mental health. They could act on this in a discriminatory way by not renting to a person who discloses a mental illness. This type of treatment can result in decreased opportunities, harassment and violence, barriers to accessing quality health treatment and can contribute to the worsening of a person’s mental health.  

Mental illness affects people of all races, genders, life experiences, etc. One in five Americans have a form of mental illness, but less than half receive treatment, according to the American Psychiatric Assocation. The fear that others may find out is one of the top reasons a person does not seek treatment for their mental health. 

Even though mental illness can impact anyone, as we discussed in Day 7 on Community Health, the health care system is largely inequitable and plagued by systematic racism and oppression.  Because of this, access to quality care is largely dependent on a person’s ZIP code or the ability to pay high premiums through insurance. This creates a scenario where many communities populated with people of color are more impacted by mental illness, but remain undertreated.  

The inequity within mental illness widens when we factor in the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, 11 percent of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. In January 2021, this number skyrocketed to 41.19 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau indicated that within this spike, BIPOC communities were disproportionately affected. 

Today’s challenge will encourage you to learn more about the stigma associated with mental health and the importance of breaking that stigma. We will also look closer at inequities in access to mental health treatment.  




Check out this interactive map that shows the social determinants of health risks across the US. 


Did you know May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and July is People of Color Mental Health Awareness Month? Check out NAMI Detroit’s work for a Stigma Free 313.

Reflect And Share

  1. Growing up, what messages did you receive about mental illness and mental health? How did that impact you?
  2. Do you feel you can talk openly about mental illness with your friends or family? Why or why not?
  3. How do you see systematic racism being connected to disparities in mental health care?
  4. What can we do in our personal and professional lives to help remove the stigma of mental health?


Start the conversation. Send the tweet. Share your story. Make the Facebook post. Sharing what you learn and experience with your family, friends, and co-workers is the first step toward allyship.

Join thousands in conversation by using hastag #EquityChallenge or #TakeTheEC22