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Effective Messages to Fight Stigma


Despite increasing public awareness and discussion about mental illness and substance use disorders, stigma is still a major barrier to many people seeking treatment. New research has identified communication strategies that are effective in reducing stigma and increasing public support for policies and programs benefitting people with behavioral health conditions.

Researchers, led by Emma McGinty, Ph.D., M.S., with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, looked at the effectiveness of various communication strategies in reducing stigma and increasing public support for mental health policies. They found that communication strategies using personal stories of individual experiences, struggles and successes, can be particularly effective. The research was published in Psychiatric Services in Advance.


Stigma and discrimination relating to mental illness not only affects individuals and their actions, especially creating a barrier to seeking help, but it is also associated with less support for public policies designed to help people with mental health and substance use conditions. For example, stigma is associated with less support for insurance parity (treating mental health and physical health conditions equally under insurance) and public spending on mental health and substance use services.

Many mental health advocacy organizations and others have been using personal stories to increase awareness and carry messages of hope for those struggling with mental health conditions. For example, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)’s Personal Stories of Triumph offers stories from people living with anxiety, depressive, obsessive-compulsive, and trauma-related disorders. See more examples in a previous blog Sharing Stories of Hope and Recovery.

Another effective type of message identified by the research is highlighting structural barriers to mental and substance use treatment. Examples of barriers include lack of insurance coverage, shortage of providers and lack of availability of evidence-based services, such as supported employment.

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McGinty and colleagues found that combining personal stories with explanations of structural barriers to treatment is particularly effective in increasing the public’s willingness to support services. An example would be a story about a specific person with a substance use disorder that also describes the environment that contributes to problems and puts the individual’s story in the larger context of the national problem. Previous research has shown that the public is more likely to support policies when problems are thought to result from societal causes rather than when individuals are thought to be responsible for causing their own problems.

Messages that focus on violence by people with mental illness may increase support for mental health services, but they also increase stigma and should be avoided according to researchers.

The research provides useful evidence for those working to address stigma and increase support for needed mental health services.


  • McGinty, E., et al. Communication Strategies to Counter Stigma and Improve Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorder Policy. Psychiatric Services in Advance. 2017.
  • Stamp Out Stigma and initiative of the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness.


AnxietyDissociative DisordersConduct DisordersADHDBipolar DisordersIntellectual DisabilitySleep DisordersDepressionAutismPatients and FamiliesHoarding DisorderGender DysphoriaAlzheimer’sOCDPersonality DisordersEating DisordersGambling DisorderSpecific Learning DisorderSomatic Symptom DisorderSchizophreniaPostpartum depressionAddictionPTSD


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