The Stigma of Mental Illness: Respecting the Elephant

by Nilsa Ricci

There is an elephant in the room; many people try to ignore its thundering stomps and resounding trumpet vocalizations. Some people think it is a figment of their imagination or that it will leave if ignored. This “elephant” represents mental illnesses, which are as real as any other medical condition.

Statistically, most Americans have a mental illness or know of someone who does. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 U.S. adults has a mental illness1. A 2017 study found that 48% of Caucasians received care for their mental illness compared to 32.6% of Hispanics1. Unfortunately, only about 10% of Hispanics who have a mental illness contact a mental health professional for help2,3 despite the many different treatment options available. Multiple factors contribute to these low rates among Latinos, but stigma plays a huge role2. A lack of information about mental illnesses increases this stigma2.

The truth is we do not completely understand the brain—our most complex organ. As Dr. Yuste said in a TEDMED talk, “You cannot really fix a car if you don’t understand how it works”4. But just because we do not fully understand the causes of mental disorders today, does not mean that we will not in the future. Dr. Yuste helped launch the BRAIN Initiative5, which began in 20136. This interdisciplinary project aims to develop new technology that can take dynamic images of the brain showing how individual brain cells and neural circuits interact in vivo6,7. These discoveries could lead to the cure and prevention of brain disorders, including mental illnesses7. President Obama described this project as a Grand Challenge of the 21st century8.

This ongoing research will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the underlying causes of mental illnesses and to treatment advancements. In the meantime, decreasing the stigma of mental illnesses can encourage individuals who are suffering to seek evaluation and treatment. Things you can do to decrease stigma:

• Educate yourself about mental disorders. Movies, television shows, and the news often portray people with mental illnesses as dangerous. In reality, they are often the ones who are most vulnerable9.
• Understand that mental disorders are real and that we should learn to recognize their symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms, do not suffer in silence. Do not be afraid to tell someone and ask for help. Be open and honest with your family, friends, and healthcare provider. There is treatment available and you are not alone.
• If someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, be supportive. Listen to them empathically and non-judgmentally. Understand that having a mental illness does not make someone weak or crazy.
• Realize that a disorder does not define a person. Instead of saying, “I am a schizophrenic/alcoholic/diabetic,” say, “I have schizophrenia/an alcohol addiction/diabetes.”

By recognizing and attempting to decrease the stigma associated with mental illnesses, we can give the “elephant” the attention and respect it deserves. Together, we can move towards a future where no one is afraid to ask for help.


Nilsa Ricci was born in Florida to a Colombian father and Peruvian mother. She graduated in 2016 from Columbia University in the City of New York with a B.A. in Neuroscience and Behavior. She is currently a first-year medical student attending the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. She is on the executive board of the school’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA).

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