Stigma and discrimination

People with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination can make their difficulties worse and make it harder to recover.

*Last updated: 4 October 2021

Mental health problems are common, affecting thousands of us in the UK. Despite this, there is still a strong stigma (negative attitude) around mental health. People with mental health problems can also experience discrimination (negative treatment) in all aspects of their lives.

This stigma and discrimination makes many people’s problems worse. It can comes from society, employers, the media, and even our own friends and family. You may even experience internalised stigma, where you come to believe the negative messages or stereotypes about yourself.

How do stigma and discrimination affect people with mental health problems?

Nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives. 

We know that people with mental health problems are among the least likely of any group with a long-term health condition or disability to:

  • find work
  • be in a steady, long-term relationship
  • live in decent housing
  • be socially included in mainstream society.

Stigma and discrimination can also make someone’s mental health problems worse, and delay or stop them getting help. Social isolation, poor housing, unemployment and poverty are all linked to mental ill health. So stigma and discrimination can trap people in a cycle of illness.

You may face more than one type of stigma: for example, you may also be stigmatised because of your race, gender, sexuality or disability. This can make life even harder.

Why are people with mental health problems discriminated against?

There are many reasons for this discrimination, including:

  • stereotypes. Society can have stereotyped views about mental ill health. Some people believe people with mental health problems are dangerous, when in fact they are at a higher risk of being attacked or harming themselves than hurting other people.
  • the media. Media reports often link mental ill health with violence, or portray people with mental health problems as dangerous, criminal, evil, or very disabled and unable to live normal, fulfilled lives.

What can I do about stigma and discrimination?

Challenge stigma

Time to Change campaigned to change the way people think and act about mental health problems. The campaign has now closed, but there is still plenty of useful information on their website about challenging stigma and discrimination when you see, hear or experience it.

They have tips for talking to someone about their mental health, which can be as simple as asking someone if they’re sure if they tell you they’re feeling fine. Showing someone there’s no shame or stigma in talking about how they’re feeling could make a huge difference.

They also have resources for your workplace or school if you want to help others understand mental health and challenge stigma.

In Scotland, the anti-stigma organisation See Me has ideas on challenging stigma and discrimination. They also have resources and activities you could use at work.

Join our network

If you want to do more campaigning around mental health issues, you could join OPEN, our personal experience network. It’s an online community of people we ask to inform what we do, through anything from quick feedback on a social media post to participating in a research project. We want to hear from people with a range of mental health experiences, whether yours is good, bad or something in between.

I'm being discriminated against - what can I do?

The Equality Act 2010 protects you from discrimination and lets you challenge it. It makes it illegal to discriminate against people with mental health problems when you:

  • are at work, applying for a job, or leaving one
  • use services such as hotels, restaurants, public transport, hospitals, local councils and places of worship
  • deal with organisations carrying out public functions such as tax collection or law enforcement
  • buy or rent property.

To be protected, you need to show your mental health problem is a disability. You may not think of yourself as disabled, but the Equality Act could still protect you if you fit its definition of disability. You need to show you have a long-term mental health problem that makes your everyday life substantially difficult. Mind has more information on what this could mean for you.

There are different ways you can experience discrimination, including:

  • direct discrimination: if you’re treated worse than others because of your mental health problem
  • indirect discrimination: if a person or organisation has arrangements in place that put you at an unfair disadvantage
  • discrimination arising from your disability: if you’re treated badly because of something that happens because of your mental health problem, for example if you’re given a warning at work for taking time off for medical appointments
  • harassment: if you’re intimidated, offended or humiliated
  • victimisation: if you’re treated badly because you’ve made a complaint.

There are different things you can do if you’re experiencing discrimination. In generally, it’s best to try these steps to resolve things.

  1. Talk to someone informally. Speak to the person or organisation who has discriminated against you. This can be a quick and easy way to resolve things.
  2. Make a formal complaint. If an informal conversation doesn’t resolve things, you can make a formal complaint. Try to do it in writing if possible. Give a clear account of what went wrong and what you’d like to happen, such as an apology, explanation or better service in future. Your complaint should be properly investigated and you should be told the outcome.
  3. Complain to the ombudsman. If your formal complaint doesn’t change things, you can take your complaint to an ombudsman. Mind has more information on which ombudsman to contact in England and Wales and how they work. There are different ombudsmen for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  4. Make a legal challenge. If you’re not able to resolve things through the ombudsman, you may want to make a legal challenge.

You don’t have to take any of these steps on your own. You can ask a friend or relative to help or get help from a professional advocate.

Further resources and information

The Equality Advisory and Support Service can help and advise you if you’ve been discriminated against.

Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) can advise you if you think you’ve been discriminated against at work.

Civil Legal Advice (CLA) can tell you if you’re eligible for legal aid if you’re making a legal challenge.