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Reducing the Stigma of Mental Illness for University Students

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 1140 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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What Role Can Institutions of Higher Education Play?

Search Terms: mental health, stigma, higher education students

 Stigma associated with mental illness is a common problem amongst undergraduate and graduate students across the country. In fact, the onset of lifetime mental illnesses often occurs on or before individuals turn twenty-four (24) years old, during the period of transition into adulthood (Kessler et al., 2005). This stigma can be a direct obstacle preventing an individual from seeking treatment due to both the general public’s stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, or self-stigma which occurs when the stigma is internalized and creates negative emotions (Maranzan, 2016). Thus, institutions of higher education have a responsibility to students to lower that stigma and equip them with resources, strategies, and confidence to seek appropriate treatment. 

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Maranzan (2016) explains that the burden of living with a mental illness has dual implications, forcing individuals to manage both the symptoms of their illness with the stigmatization that comes along with it. The stigma of mental illness can exist in many ways, ranging from public or structural stigma, to self-stigma, to stigma by association. Public stigma is often defined as “an understanding of the general population’s negative appraisal of people with socially devalued attributes such as a mental illness” (Brown, Moloney, & Brown, 2018, p. 202). Gaddis, Ramirez, and Hernandez (2018) further explain that public stigma is a meso-level measurement that must account for the environment and context in which an individual is perceiving stigma from others at a specific time and place. Similarly, self-stigma occurs when an individual “internalizes stigma and experiences negative emotions, attitudes, and maladaptive behavior” (Maranzan, 2016, p. 333).

Unfortunately, a university campus is often an environment where both public and self-stigma are heightened, preventing students from seeking treatment for a mental illness due to shame or low self-esteem. Maranzan (2016) uses data from the Daily Canadian Community Health Survey showing approximately one out of every five people with a mental illness “believe they need treatment but do not seek it out due to fears of what others might think” (p. 374). Stigma can also influence the disclosure of symptoms, the timeliness of seeking help, and increased stress (Brown et al., 2018).

 Gaddis et al. (2018) indicate that because of the uniqueness of the environment of college and university campuses, institutions of higher education also be an ideal place to reduce stigma and the negative association between mental illness and seeking treatment. When looking to determine the best way to target negative stigma, the research suggests that university campaigns that highlight mental health awareness are both effective in reducing stigma and help to encourage students to seek appropriate treatment (Gaddis et al., 2018; Giroux & Geiss, 2019; Maranzan, 2016). Gaddis et al. (2018) specify that “colleges and universities might reduce stigma by investing in localized anti-stigma campaigns with physical and digital materials conveying facts and statistics about mental health” (p. 190). Likewise, Giroux and Geiss (2019) suggest that a “student-led mental health awareness campaign has shown potential to both target stigma and increase help-seeking among college students.” (p. 62).

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 The stigma of mental illness is particularly high amongst students in the health professions, and practices within interprofessional education may be a unique opportunity to change attitudes and perceptions within that particular student population. Strategies to add mental health awareness into interprofessional education curriculum at health sciences institutions include using patients and cases studies as well as using teams of students to collaborate on a particular issue using problem-based learning (Maranzan, 2016). In fact, working as a team toward a shared mission like “developing a group definition of mental health or designing an anti-stigma campaign” would provide an opportunity for students to learn from each other and empower those who may have experience with a mental illness (Maranzan, 2016, p. 377). Specifically, the use of multimedia and digital resources as tools to reach university students, as well as targeted events to engage students both prove to be effective types of campaigns (Giroux & Geiss, 2019; Maranzan, 2016).

 Mental illness is prevalent amongst university students across the United States and associated with such illnesses are public and self-stigmas. Negative stigmas associated with mental illness in the college and university communities often prevent students from disclosing symptoms and seeking appropriate treatment. Thus, institutions of higher education have a responsibility to students to increase awareness of mental health and lower the stigma attached to mental illness. The research helps not only to confirm the importance and prevalence of this issue, but also to illuminate the particulars of what universities can do to help. A general consensus is that awareness campaigns that demonstrate the importance of mental health, places where students can seek help, and give students the opportunity to work together to understand one another can make a huge difference in the effort to lower the stigma associated with mental illness. Institutions of higher education must take the steps necessary to make this a priority in their campus communities.


  • Brown, R. L., Moloney, M. E., & Brown, J. (2018). Gender difference in the processes linking public stigma and self-disclosure among college students with mental illness. Journal of Community Psychology, 26(2), 202-212.
  • Gaddis, S. M., Ramirez, D., & Hernandez, E. L. (2018). Contextualizing public stigma: Endorsed mental health treatment stigma on college and university campuses. Social Science and Medicine, 197, 183-191.
  • Giroux D., & Geiss, E. (2019). Evaluating a student-led mental health awareness campaign. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 24(1), 61-66.
  • Kessler, et al., 2005. Prevalence and treatment of mental disorders, 1990 to 2003. New England Journal of Medicine, 352(42), 2515-2523.
  • Maranzan, A. K. (2016). Interprofessional education in mental health: An opportunity to reduce mental illness stigma. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 30(3), 370-377.


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