Mental Health Discrimination: Forms It Can Take And Resources For Addressing It

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Mental health discrimination, also known as mental illness discrimination, is a form of discrimination that may affect people with mental illness. It may vary in type, intensity, and context, with various negative potential effects and consequences. 

To understand this form of discrimination, it may be helpful to explore the ways it may manifest, its potential implications for mental health, the differences between stigma and discrimination, and strategies for navigating its effects. 

You don't have to navigate mental health discrimination alone

What is mental health discrimination?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines discrimination as “differential treatment of the members of different ethnic, religious, national, or other groups.” Discrimination involves “negative, hostile, and injurious treatment” of the members of these groups, and it can be applied in various contexts to people in various situations.

Mental health discrimination is closely related to mental health stigma, but the two are slightly different. Stigma refers to negative attitudes or beliefs about a person or group. In contrast, discrimination refers to the resulting behaviors and differential treatment that may result from stigma. 

What forms can mental health discrimination and stigma take?

Mental health discrimination can occur in many settings, ranging from interactions with the healthcare system to conversations in the workplace, encounters with strangers, and others. Before exploring specific examples, however, it may be helpful to look at the different types of stigma, which can offer valuable context for how discrimination may emerge. 

Researchers have identified different types of stigmas, including the following: 

  • Public stigma: Negative attitudes or beliefs about people with mental illness at a societal level
  • Institutional stigma: Mental illness stigma that can exist within organizations, such as governments and institutions
  • Self-stigma: Self-stigma refers to internalized stigma in which a person holds negative attitudes toward themselves about their own mental illness

Resulting discrimination

With these different types of stigmas in mind, it may be helpful to look at the resulting discrimination that can occur regarding mental health, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Harmful language: Harmful language can involve insults or slurs—for example, referring to someone with a mental illness as “crazy.”
  • Discrimination in employment: Employment discrimination could involve a company refusing to provide reasonable accommodations for someone with a mental illness or refusing to hire someone because of their diagnosis.
  • Harassment: Harassment can range from verbal abuse to physical violence targeting someone because of their mental health status. 
  • Negative self-talk: Negative self-talk could involve a person berating themselves for their mental health condition or telling themselves to “just get over it.”
  • Lower quality of health care: Lower-quality healthcare could involve a healthcare provider refusing to prescribe medication to someone with mental illness due to stigmatizing views on the individual sticking to treatment and using mental health services.  

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

These are a few examples of the ways mental health discrimination may manifest as a result of public stigma, institutional stigma, or self-stigma. 


The effects of stigma and discrimination on mental health

In addition to the direct impacts that discrimination can have on individuals with mental illnesses (for example, being fired due to having a mental health diagnosis), mental health discrimination and stigma can have various emotional and psychological effects. 

Some of these harmful effects can include: 

  • Thoughts of hopelessness 
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Challenges at work and in relationships
  • A sense of being misunderstood by friends and family
  • Reluctance to seek mental healthcare or to continue mental health treatment

Additionally, those experiencing mental health discrimination may find themselves experiencing loneliness or social isolation, which may, in turn, lead to additional physical, mental, and behavioral health effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these effects may include an increased risk of depression, anxiety, dementia, and heart disease. 

Strategies for navigating mental health stigma and discrimination

Managing the effects of mental health discrimination and stigma can be challenging. However, a range of strategies are available that may be helpful for those navigating either external or internalized stigma or discrimination related to mental health. These include the following: 

  • Support groups: Support groups may be helpful for connecting with others over shared experiences and avoiding social isolation.
  • Understanding your rights and protections: Understanding rights and protections through laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, designed to prevent discrimination based on identities and factors like mental illness. 
  • Self-care strategies: Mindfulness, healthy eating, and exercise are self-care strategies that may benefit overall well-being.
  • Treatment options: You might also consider treatment for mental health conditions, which can be a vital part of addressing symptoms and improving your overall quality of life.
You don't have to navigate mental health discrimination alone

Alternative support options 

Getting support via therapy can be a helpful strategy for those experiencing mental health issues, mental health discrimination, or mental health stigma. However, sometimes the stigma surrounding mental health can make it difficult and intimidating to seek treatment, due to fear of others finding out and judging you for seeking help. If you’re experiencing these worries, online therapy may be an appealing alternative. 

With online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, you can meet with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home without having to go into an office. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, and live chat sessions and send messages to your therapist throughout the week. 

The effectiveness of online therapy has been demonstrated for a range of concerns. For example, a 2017 review article conducted an overview of the efficacy of internet-based based cognitive-behavioral therapy (ICBT) in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. It concluded that “ICBT could be effective in the treatment and management of various psychiatric disorders,” including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 


Mental health stigma refers to negative beliefs or attitudes toward individuals with mental illness. In contrast, mental health discrimination refers to resulting behaviors, such as differential treatment in the workplace, the use of harmful language, or the failure to provide quality healthcare. 

For those experiencing challenges related to mental health discrimination, strategies like seeking support, understanding one’s rights, and practicing self-care may support one’s mental health and overall well-being. Therapy—either in-person or online—may also be a helpful resource.

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