Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the country, yet only one-third of people with symptoms receive treatment. Why would such a vast number of people choose to suffer in silence when many can access treatment? Thanks to the stigma surrounding mental health, many people find it difficult—and even shameful—to acknowledge that they have a problems with their mental health. Although these stigmas prevail, overcoming them is not only possible but critical to recovering from anxiety and mental health disorders.

Social Stigma and Internalized Stigma

Mental health stigma can be separated into two categories: social stigma and self stigma. Social stigma includes all tropes, stereotypes, and negative prejudices surrounding clinical anxiety that are held by society at large. When people with anxiety are casually dismissed as 'crazy', that's social stigma talking. When they're preemptively considered dangerous or a threat to society, this also falls under the fault of social stigma. When their opinions aren't taken seriously because of their disorder—well, you get the idea. A 2010 survey of adolescents with mental health disorders found that 46% reported experiencing unfair judgment from family members because of their disorders, while 62% reported experiencing the same stigmatization from their peers. Social stigma is harmful for those with anxiety and is a significant catalyst for self stigma.

Self stigma occurs when those who suffer from anxiety disorders turn the criticism inward. When sufferers think less of themselves because of their disorder and when they assume others will see them negatively because of their mental health, it's a self-induced shame. Studies show that self stigma is proven to negatively affect professional success, foster low self-esteem, and isolate its victims from social interaction.

Overcoming Mental Health Stigma

A study performed in 2009 by German researchers found that stigma surrounding mental health disorders significantly decreases willingness to seek treatment. For this reason, overcoming both social and self stigma is a critical step to conquering anxiety.

One way to do this is to combat mental health myths with facts. People with high levels of anxiety are often told to 'toughen up' because their psychological condition is viewed as a character flaw instead of a mental health problem that deserves professional attention. Those who perpetuate these myths typically don't suffer from anxiety disorders themselves and often, educating this group on mental health does little to decrease stigma. Instead, informing anxiety sufferers that 'toughening up' isn't a medically sound treatment and giving them access to legitimate ways to manage their anxiety can prevent these myths from becoming roadblocks to recovery.

Become an Advocate for Mental Health

For sympathizers of anxiety patients, taking strides to change the way mental health disorders are viewed by the public can go a long way. In light of the onslaught of mass shootings committed by those with serious mental illness, the media is quick to blanket all mental health sufferers as deranged and violent. Yet, these high-profile characters represent a small percentage of mental illness. In fact, the majority of those who suffer from mental health disorders are not much different from the average person.

The thing about sympathy, however, is that it means nothing without action. "We would argue that it is not enough to stop hating people. You actually have to promote their rights and opportunities," Director of the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment (NCSE), Patrick Corrigan, Psy.D. said in an interview with Chicago Policy Review. Whether you suffer from mental health problems or not, being an advocate for those with anxiety disorders in your workplace and communities can make a big difference in combating anxiety stigma.

Breaking free from mental health stigma is the first step to managing your anxiety. Exploring therapy, finding a community of people with similar experiences, and speaking with an anxiety specialist and/or doctor can help shake some of the entrenched shame that results from social and self-inflicted stigma.

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Date of original publication:

Updated: November 10, 2015