Stigma relating to anxiety

What is stigma?

Stigma marks a person as ‘different’. The World Health Organisation defines stigma as ‘a mark of shame, disgrace or disapproval which results in an individual being rejected, discriminated against, and excluded from participating in a number of different areas of society’.

The stigma that exists between two groups of people is a result of either actual or perceived ‘difference’ between any two groups of people – it can be any form of difference including gender, race, religious belief, sexuality or mental health status.

Stigma differs from discrimination. Discrimination is unfair treatment due to a person’s identity, which in this context would relate to unfair treatment in response to experiencing anxiety or having an anxiety condition. In other words, stigma is the negative stereotypes and attitudes and discrimination is the behaviour that results from this negative stereotype.

The three levels of stigma

In a mental health context, stigma is complex and ever-changing.  It can be broadly categorised into three levels:

  • Structural: expectations within a society, cultural norms and institutional practices (including laws, regulations and policies) that constrain the opportunities, resources, and wellbeing for stigmatised groups
  • Social: negative social norms which predispose individuals in a social group to fear, reject and discriminate against people who are different. Social stigma can operate at two levels: (1) Actual Social Stigma: the actual stigmatising attitudes people hold, and (2) Perceived Social Stigma: how somebody thinks everyone else thinks about people who are different (e.g. how stigmatising do I think others are about people with anxiety?)
  • Self: Negative self-talk which could lead to denial of symptoms, rejection of treatment and self-isolation from potentially valuable social supports

Stigma related to anxiety

Research from the National Survey of Mental Health Literacy and Stigma shows that a common misconception about how society views anxiety is ‘most people believe that anxiety is a sign of personal weakness’. The other two common misconceptions include:

  • ‘most people believe anxiety is not a real medical illness’; and
  • ‘most people believe that people with anxiety could snap out of it if they wanted to’.

There is a substantial discrepancy between perceived and actual levels of stigma related to anxiety in the community. A nationally representative survey commissioned by Beyond Blue found that almost two in three people with anxiety believe others see it as a sign of personal weakness. However, the same survey shows people in Australia are more accepting of anxiety conditions than many believe. Results show:

  • 90 per cent, or nine out of ten people in Australia, believe an anxiety condition is a real medical illness;
  • 86 per cent say they do not consider anxiety a personal weakness;
  • 86 per cent don’t believe anxiety is something you can just snap out of.

Therefore, people in the community are not as judgmental towards people with anxiety as one would assume.

Impact of stigma

For people experiencing anxiety, the perception that ‘most people’ will have a negative attitude towards their condition reduces the chance they will seek support, both formally (e.g. GPs, psychologists) and informally (e.g. family and friends).

How do we reduce stigma?

There are many opportunities to change community understanding and perceptions related to mental health issues and conditions.

A key element in reducing stigma related to mental health is for everyone within the community to have a good understanding of anxiety – that is, improving our mental health literacy. There are three key elements to mental health literacy:

  • knowledge of signs and symptoms of poor mental health
  • knowledge of prevention and management techniques
  • knowledge of how to support others

It is important that we continue to challenge these common misconceptions about anxiety, via such campaigns as the Know When Anxiety is Talking as well as other Beyond Blue initiatives, where the intention is to start to bring perceptions in line with reality.