Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness // A conversation with psychology professor Patrick Corrigan

Patrick Corrigan is a distinguished professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a core faculty member in its Division of Counseling and Rehabilitation Science. In 2022, he received the American Psychological Association’s Senior Career Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest. His area of research examines the social determinants of health and wellness among diverse groups of people with psychiatric and other disabilities. In 2016, he launched the periodical Stigma and Health. Prior to that, he was the editor of the American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation.
Realizing that the benefits of psychiatric services are limited by stigma, he has spent the past two decades broadening his research to include the prejudice and discrimination against those with mental illness. His work has been supported by the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment, a collaboration of investigators and advocates from more than a dozen institutions where he is currently the principal investigator.
Corrigan has written more than 400 peer-reviewed articles and has authored or edited 15 books, most recently The Stigma of Disease and Disability. He is also part of the team that developed the Honest, Open, Proud series of anti-stigma programs.

Is it your understanding that the reluctance to seek help for mental illness is related to its stigmatization?
Yes. There are stigmas related to all sorts of health conditions, such as being in a wheelchair. But the stigma of going for psychotherapy, which is a mental health issue, is very loaded.

Because we still haven’t made peace with the fact that it’s an illness like any other?
I’m not sure if the solution is to say that mental illness is an illness like any other. In fact, there is evidence that when you frame it like that, it can make it worse for some groups of people. A good example is that Australia has a program called Beyond Blue, the whole premise of which is that depression is an illness that is treatable like anything else. The research shows that it’s true, but the minute you call anything an “illness,” you’re calling that person different from you, and different people are “bad.” This is especially true of those with serious mental illness, which might not “go away” and implies that you can flip out at any time.

Let’s go back to the first point. Is mental illness different from physical illness as far as the way people view it?
Mental illness is probably among the conditions that are viewed most negatively. I’m the editor of the APA’s journal Stigma and Health, so I have the pulse on stigma across multiple health conditions. A highly stigmatized one is weight. The big thing that interacts with illness is if it looks to other people as if the sufferer is responsible. So they see the person as being responsible for being overweight because he’s lazy, and the person with mental illness as being responsible because he doesn’t have a backbone.

In other words, people don’t view it in the same way they view a physical condition; they see it as something the person has control over and freedom of choice to not be that way.
That’s where the stigma comes from.

Which carries over to not wanting to seek help, because then the sufferer is going to become stigmatized as a mentally ill person.
Stigma has three negative consequences. You just mentioned the first, which we would call “label avoidance.” Mental illness is fundamentally hidden, unlike gender or race, which are clearly visible. The way a person acquires the stigma of mental illness is by getting the label, and the way they acquire the label is by people finding out that someone is in treatment. There’s a lot of evidence that people won’t go for help because of that. But the two equally important parallel stigmas are that mental illness leads to self-stigma, meaning a sense of shame. As I like to say, it’s bad enough being depressed, but it’s worse when on top of that you feel ashamed of yourself. Then there’s the public stigma, which leads to discrimination, such as not wanting to hire someone with mental illness or rent to them or let them date your children.