The Danger Of Workplace Mental Health Stigma And If It’s Possible To Move Past It

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

Nina Tomaro | Marketing & Communications Consultant, Mind Share Partners

A Mind Share Partners interview with author, UC Berkeley and UCSF professor, and internationally recognized psychologist, Stephen Hinshaw.

This article was originally published on Mind Share Partners' "Mental Health at Work" section on Thrive Global.

Up to 80% of Americans will experience a diagnosable mental health condition at some point during their lives, whether they know it or not. While other countries like the United Kingdom and Canada have begun taking massive action on the issue when it comes to the workplace, the U.S. is just at the beginning stages.

Employers might take action when they see that mental health conditions and substance abuse cost employers $225.8 billion every year. But what is often more difficult for employers to see is how mental health stigma plays out in their workplace, what exactly the stigma is, and what it looks like.

Mind Share Partner's custom workshops and advising services teach companies to name, normalize, and navigate mental health at work. Learn more here

If you are going to find ways to resolve a problem, you first have to understand exactly what the problem is. That’s why we sought out professor Stephen Hinshaw, a renowned mental health stigma expert to have a conversation about what stigma when it comes to mental health in the workplace, and how employers can lessen it and even change stigma within their organizations.


Q: One of the major stumbling blocks for many employees who are managing a mental health condition is the social stigma attached. What is mental health stigma and how does it affect the workplace today in the U.S.?


Hinshaw: “Stigma, like many, if not most, psychological terms is Greek. In ancient Greece “stigma” literally meant that you were branded in an unfavored group in society. A mark was literally burned into your skin so that it was clear who was in the ingroup and outgroup. Most stigma today is not a literal brand or mark—it’s a figurative and psychological one. Stigma today says, “We know you are a member of this group, which means there is something inferior about you and we need to keep our distance.” As of 2018, the three most stigmatized groups in the U.S. are the homeless, substance abusers, and mental illness. Believe it or not, left-handedness used to be stigmatized, but the social norms and beliefs have changed so that today it might signal that you have great spatial ability and might go to MIT. When social norms change, what was formally stigmatized may not be anymore. We haven’t made fundamental strides on the mental illness stigma in the U.S. over the last 100 years, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t change the social norms now.”


Q: So what you just described is the social stigma of mental health, but there is also self-stigma that occurs. What is self-stigma and how does it come into play for employees managing mental health conditions in the workplace?


Hinshaw: “First published in 1954, there was a book by a famous American psychologist named Gordon W. Allport called “The Nature of Prejudice.” This book still holds true today. One of Allport’s premises was if society shows prejudice against a certain group, it is apparent what the stereotypes and stigmas are. We previously learned of them through campfire stories, and today it’s Twitter Feeds. Inevitably, according to the premise, people in the outcast groups are going to internalize the stereotypes and stigmas they are seeing and take on the negative characteristics the stigma says they “deserve.” This is what we call self-stigma.

While self-stigma is likely when a group is consistently castigated, if members of that group bond with one another, show solidarity, and demand rights, self-stigma is lowered. This is the reason why the black power movement, women’s movement, and gay pride movement are important to our society over the last decade and have significantly reduced self-stigma and prejudice for members of those groups. A question for you now: What has been the primary group until very recently you never wanted to be associated with? The answer most wou