Why So Serious About The Self?

You have seen movies in which characters have acted violently. Many times, these characters also have a mental illness. Violence is one common stereotype of psychological disorders, along with rebellion and child-like behavior. In The Dark Knightand Me, Myself, and Irene, a character has multiple personality disorder, which is said to cause demonic or mean behavior. Harvey Dent develops a second, evil personality called Two-Face, while Charley Baileygates is known to lash out at random due to his other, less friendly, personality. In each character, mental illness is shown to bring out violence, instead of many other possible behaviors. As such, these movies add to the stigma that surrounds mental disorders.

Stigma, or disapproval of people who are different, is commonly experienced by those with mental illnesses. However, you might not have known that there are two types of stigma. Public stigma includes stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination as seen in the media and played out in situations such as the workforce. It can be distinguished from self-stigma, which includes internalizing stereotypes, agreeing with negative beliefs about the self, and responding to prejudice in a negative way by failing to accomplish own duties. Public stigma has been researched but little is known about self-stigma and its impact on self-esteem.

Recent research has explored self-stigma and mental illness, partly stemming from the extensive study in social psychology of self-stigma related to other stigmatized groups, including race, gender, and those with AIDS or physical disabilities. Corrigan and Watson from the University of Chicago predict that people with mental illnesses will react similarly to self-stigma as these unique groups. It seems obvious that people with psychological disorders, living in a society that supports stigmatizing thoughts, will experience lowered self-esteem as a result; however, Corrigan and Watson outline two other ways in which the group can react to self-stigma, anger and indifference. Just as some African Americans may react to discrimination by calling for change, some people with mental illnesses may react to self-stigma by working toward their treatment goals with determination.

Corrigan and Watson continue to propose that people with mental illnesses will react differently towards self-stigma according to the situation. Also, those who believe that society’s stigmatized beliefs are valid are more likely to experience a decrease in self-esteem, while those who view stigmatized beliefs as undeserved will not experience a decrease in self-esteem. Those who have high self-esteem will respond to self-stigma with anger and empowerment, only if they identify themselves with the stigmatized group; however, they are more likely to respond with indifference if they do not. While this makes sense, it does not correlate with the belief that the self is stable across different situations and over time. However, it is a start in the study of self-stigma related to mental illness.

A study in 2003 evaluated the Internalized Stigma of Mental Illness scale, which is designed to measure an individual’s experience of stigma. The scale consisted of a questionnaire that measured depressive symptoms, self-esteem, perceived discrimination, empowerment, and recovery. The study concluded that the scale was both reliable and valid. While stigmatized beliefs in society are resistant to change, negative responses to self-stigma may be changed. Lessening the negative response of self-stigma will only aid in treatment. The scale may become helpful for researchers to not only assess self-stigma but to address its responses in the treatment process.


Corrigan, P. (2002). The Paradox of Self-Stigma and Mental Illness Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9 (1), 35-53 DOI: 10.1093/clipsy/9.1.35

Boyd Ritsher, J. (2003). Internalized stigma of mental illness: psychometric properties of a new measure Psychiatry Research, 121 (1), 31-49 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2003.08.008

Nisha Kumar, BS

Nisha Kumar, BS, is a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College in psychology. She aspires to become a psychologist after obtaining her Master's in Clinical Psychology. Related interests include anxiety disorders and the psychology of media and technology.
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