Unraveling Centuries: The Evolving Stigma of Mental Health and Therapy

The history of mental health and therapy dates back millennia, evolving from ancient civilizations to contemporary approaches.

Here’s the cliffnotes:

The historical evolution of mental health and therapy has created a pervasive issue of stigma surrounding mental health conditions. Stigma, arising from deeply entrenched societal beliefs and misconceptions, has long hindered individuals from seeking and receiving appropriate mental health care (Corrigan, 2004). 

What is stigma? Stigma manifests in various forms, including social exclusion, discrimination, and stereotypes that label those with mental health challenges as ‘weak’ or ‘dangerous’. This stigma often leads to self-stigmatization, where individuals internalize these negative attitudes, creating barriers to openly discussing their struggles or seeking assistance (Corrigan & Watson, 2002). 

How do we combat stigma? Combating mental health stigma requires a multifaceted approach, involving education, advocacy, and challenging preconceived notions about mental illness, ultimately fostering a more supportive and understanding society. As educators, parents, and community members, at the individual level, there are ways to challenge the stigma in your own lives and create a safe space for the people in your life to discuss their own mental health challenges.

Empowering Through Education and Advocacy Against Mental Health Stigma

Education: Education serves as a critical foundation in challenging the stigma surrounding mental health and therapy. It equips individuals with accurate knowledge about mental health conditions, helping to dispel misunderstandings and stereotypes that contribute to stigma (Corrigan & Watson, 2002). When people have access to reliable information, they can better empathize with those experiencing mental health challenges and understand that mental illnesses are medical conditions, not character flaws.

Comprehensive education initiatives, whether through schools, community programs, or digital platforms, have the power to shape attitudes and foster a culture of compassion and support for individuals dealing with mental health challenges (Corrigan, 2004).

Advocacy: In tandem with education, advocacy amplifies the efforts to combat mental health stigma by challenging discriminatory attitudes and promoting policies that prioritize mental health care (Thornicroft et al., 2016).

Advocacy involves giving a voice to individuals with lived experiences, allowing them to share their stories and struggles openly. By highlighting the real-life experiences of those affected, advocacy works to humanize mental health conditions and showcase the need for understanding and support from society at large. Furthermore, advocacy calls for systemic changes, urging governments and organizations to allocate resources, reduce barriers to mental health services, and ensure equitable access to quality treatment, ultimately creating an environment conducive to healing and recovery (Sartorius, 2002).

Empathy: The Heartbeat of Understanding in Mental Health Support

A powerful method to establish a safe space is by showcasing empathy, a distinction often blurred with sympathy:

Empathy entails experiencing feelings with someone, while sympathy implies feeling for them.

Demonstrating empathy fosters profound and meaningful connections, while sympathy remains on the surface. Although these two may initially appear similar, understanding their dissimilarity can profoundly impact one’s rapport with the individual they aim to support. For a comprehensive grasp of these concepts, watching Brene Brown’s video on Empathy is highly recommended.

Reshaping the Discourse: Person-First Language and Mental Health

Language: Another approach to cultivate a nurturing space for youth involves a shift in the language surrounding mental health and therapy. Given the stigmatized historical background of mental health, altering the language we’ve used for centuries and gaining awareness of how we articulate mental illness and therapy can be an arduous task.

Person-First: ‘Person-first’ language emerges as a potent tool in challenging the prevailing stigma. It prioritizes the person over their dis(ability) or diagnosis. For instance, instead of saying “a schizophrenic,” a more empathetic phrase would be “a person with schizophrenia.” Similarly, rather than “autistic,” we can opt for “a person with autism.” Placing the individual before their ailment or diagnosis, ‘person-first’ language seeks to humanize and avoid defining someone solely by their condition.

Accountability & Practice: On a broader scale, transforming the language surrounding mental health and therapy might appear daunting, and rightly so. It requires persistent work and acknowledges that errors are inevitable, and perfection is impossible to achieve. Therefore, recognizing the strength of accountability and extending genuine apologies is crucial. When our language inadvertently harms and causes offense, it is paramount to pause, acknowledge the mistake, and commit to learning and improvement: “Hey, I’m sorry. I made a mistake, and I am still learning. I will strive to do better.” It is as uncomplicated as that.

Taking Ownership: Embracing accountability and apologizing for missteps holds a lot of power, emphasizing that making mistakes is okay, and acknowledging them is a demonstration of strength. Language holds profound meaning and significantly contributes to the reluctance of individuals in discussing their mental health challenges. Exercising caution in how we discuss mental health and therapy and reshaping our linguistic approach is a small yet vital step in challenging the prevailing stigma.

YESS Institute and Social Emotional Learning (SEL): What is SEL and how does it relate to mental health?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a process through which we acquire skills and knowledge to manage emotions, build positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Here are a few insights on the impact of SEL:

Social emotional learning (SEL) plays a crucial role in addressing and reducing the stigma around mental health and therapy in several ways:

YESS Institute SEL Programs for Youth

In Conclusion

The historical journey of mental health and therapy reveals a persistent challenge: the stigma that still shadows mental health today. As parents, educators, and community members, it’s vital for us to recognize this stigma and actively work against it. Our role begins with education, arming ourselves with accurate knowledge to combat misconceptions and foster understanding. Through advocacy, we can uplift the voices of those with lived experiences, pushing for systemic changes that prioritize mental health care.

Furthermore, displaying empathy and being mindful of the language we use when discussing mental health can help create safe spaces for open discussions, especially with our children and students. While it may seem daunting to change age-old attitudes and language, let’s remember that every small effort counts. Acknowledging our mistakes, learning, and taking accountability are powerful steps toward fostering a stigma-free environment for our children and our community.

Social emotional learning (SEL) programs – like those provided by the YESS Institute – promote self-awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy, and open communication, all of which are key elements in reducing the stigma around mental health and therapy. By fostering these skills and creating supportive environments, SEL contributes to a more understanding and accepting society when it comes to mental health challenges. Together, we can make a meaningful impact and nurture a society that embraces mental health with compassion and empathy.

Interested in YESS SEL Programs? Check out the details here.


Corrigan, P. W. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614-625.

Corrigan, P. W., & Watson, A. C. (2002). The paradox of self-stigma and mental illness. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9(1), 35-53.

Fouka, G., & Mantzorou, M. (2011). What are the major ethical issues in conducting research? Is there a conflict between the research ethics and the nature of nursing? Health Science Journal, 5(1), 3-14.

Porter, R. (2002). Madness: A Brief History. Oxford University Press.

Sartorius, N. (2002). Stigma and mental health. The Lancet, 359(9309), 1363-1364.

Thornicroft, G., Mehta, N., Clement, S., Evans-Lacko, S., Doherty, M., Rose, D., … & Henderson, C. (2016). Evidence for effective interventions to reduce mental-health-related stigma and discrimination. The Lancet, 387(10023), 1123-1132.

Zilboorg, G. (1941). A history of medical psychology. Norton.

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