More than one American in 20 has some form of major psychiatric illness, most often schizophrenia. Four times that number, one in five, has some sort of mental health issue. Despite the commonness of mental health problems, these problems continue to be stigmatized. This stigma is one of the most dangerous aspects of mental illness, and one of the largest obstacles to seeking treatment. Much of the difficulty mental illness causes the patient lies not in the illness itself but in lack of treatment and lack of support from friends, family, and co-workers, and an inability for patients to get the help they need, which in turn is due to the stigma preventing the patient from telling anyone or even, in many cases, getting a proper diagnosis.
In fact, only 40 percent of mentally ill people even start treatment, and many of them drop out. The stigma of mental illness is self-perpetuating. People with mental illness hide their conditions from those around them. The popular image of mental illness comes from fiction and from those who are too sick to hide it, and harmful, damaging, and pernicious stereotypes take root. People raised in the stereotypes, and surrounded by people who are raised in the stereotypes, are unable to tell people about their problems, or even recognize them as mental illness, and so it continues.
The stigma of mental illness also means sufferers face discrimination. It may be harder for people who are mentally ill to find jobs or housing, and in some cases they may even face physical violence. Women who are mentally ill are at heightened risk of sexual assault, in part because of the expectation that they will be dismissed as delusional if they report it, and all people with mental illnesses are under threat of violence from people who will be believed if they say it was defensive.
Fortunately, more and more people, including several celebrities, are coming forward about mental illness. By coming forward, they are changing the public face of psychiatric difficulty and helping break the stigma. There are some indicators that thee efforts are having the desired effect. Last year, a study conducted in England found attitudes toward the mentally ill improving, and greater sympathy and understanding of mental illness, with less fear and distrust.