Dignity in Mental Health: 7 Ways People with Mental Illness are Shamed and Disrespected

World Mental Health Day #mental #health #dignity

October 10th is World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme is dignity in mental health. Sadly, dignity is not a given in mental health care. People with mental illness continue to receive poor treatment, services, and are often stigmatized. In addition to my private practice, I’ve worked in community mental health for 20 years (more than half of which has been in services to the homeless) as a clinician and a clinical supervisor. I think we all strive to provide the best care we can, but there are many barriers to providing dignified care even for motivated social workers and clinicians.

And so, I give you my:

Top 7 ways mental health consumers are shamed and disrespected

  1. People with mental illness are stigmatized. They are blamed for their illness. They are feared. They are discriminated against. When is the last time you saw a mentally ill person positively portrayed by the media?
  2. Services aren’t culturally relevant or inclusive. Culture and gender have a huge impact on how mental illness and treatment are viewed. Providers must be culturally competent or consumers (patients/clients) risk misdiagnosis, inappropriate or inaccessible treatment, and further stigmatization.
  3. People with mental illness often live in poverty. Without family support, most chronically mentally ill people receive financial support in the form of Social Security Income. In my county this is less than $900 per month. And the average rent for a one bedroom apartment is $2500. That’s appalling.
  4. Mental health services are hard to access. If someone is able to overcome the stigma and seek help, they are often faced with a cumbersome bureacracy that is hard to navigate. We need to do better about bringing services to consumers rather than expecting them to come to us. In many states, jails and prisons are the largest providers of mental health care. That just doesn’t seem right. According to NAMI, 50% of mentally adults didn’t receive treatment during the previous year.
  5. Mental health services are underfunded. Funding is inadequate for mental health services. It is not uncommon for consumers to have to wait weeks or months to be seen by a provider. Of course, lack of funding makes it hard to access services as mentioned above.
  6. Consumers aren’t given a voice or choice in treatment. Our job as mental health providers isn’t to tell consumers (patients/clients) what to do or what kind of treatment they need. Treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all. These are collaborative decisions requiring the input of the consumers. To offer only one type of treatment or to make choices without their input is undignified.
  7. Treatment is symptom focused. People with mental illness are more than their symptoms. Certainly, symptoms do need to be addressed, but treatment interventions should be strengths-based and inspire hope.

Why does it matter? It matters because we are all human beings with the same right to dignity and respect. Twenty percent of American adults experience a mental illness (source: NAMI). The mentally ill are our brothers, neighbors, teachers, co-workers. If services are not available, hard to access, or stigmatizing, people will simply not get the treatment they need and deserve.

I hope that World Mental Health Day is only the beginning of raising awareness about the importance of dignity in mental health.


Sharon Martin has a passion for clinical supervision, mentoring new social workers, blogging, and reading all things social work related. She is a California Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 20 years in the field. Sharon has worked extensively in Bay Area non-profits and successfully runs a private counseling practice in San Jose. Sharon writes regularly for PsychCentral and the Good Men Project. She's also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism.

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