How Stigma Can Lead to Isolation

By Ashley Virnan | Feb. 21, 2019

Isolation acts as both a cause and an effect on a person’s level of distress. When a person feels distressed, they are more likely to isolate, and the loneliness can lead to even more distress. This cruel cycle relegates many people with mental illness to a life of isolation. But what is the leading cause of isolation? Is it purely symptomatic? Or is it something else? While many assume that isolation comes from symptoms, I believe that stigma also plays a big role. 
I’ve seen, first hand, what stigma does to a person. I’ve experienced it with my 25-year-old, big brother, who—because of stigma—refuses to receive help. He does not want to be seen as “crazy” or “unfit.” 
Imagine a person you know who could light up a room with their witty jokes and contagious laugh. A warmhearted and loyal individual who always puts others first. A smart, courageous, goal-oriented person that people looked up to and adored. Well, that was how my brother used to be. 

Now, he refuses to leave the three dimensions of the dark basement, he dropped out of school, does not work, walks around with his head down in hopelessness and rarely eats or goes out. At this point, I feel lucky if I can get a “hello” out of him. 

Although I don’t have a medical degree, and he hasn’t been officially diagnosed, it’s clear that he is suffering from mental illness. As his sister, it breaks my heart to see how the internalization of public and cultural stigmatization led to my brother’s untreated disorder, belief that he is less worthy than others and social isolation.

It is my thought that when someone is going through mental illness, especially one that involves depressive episodes, support is critical. My brother has pushed me and my family away over and over again. But we neverstop loving, caring and trying for him. We have tried speaking with him about getting help and guiding him back on the path to finding himself. But, as a response, he would say “this is me.”

How are we supposed to support those who don’t accept the fact that they have mental illness? Or the ones that socially isolate themselves so much that support is merely impossible? One study even accounted that social isolation increases mortality rates by 22%. So, what are we going to do to help this population of people with mental illness who face ostracization, and in turn, social isolation? 
As a sister who has already lost a brother to a tragic motorcycle accident, I won’t stand to lose another sibling to stigma. I’ve read books, researched articles and even spoken to psychologists in search of an answer. What I found is the answer is within people like you and me.

It is our duty to give hope for the hopeless and to fight for those that can’t defend themselves. The mere truth is that it’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take a villageTogether, we can fight. Together, we can end social injustices that lead to the detrimental effects of stigma. Together, we can make the impossible, possible. 

It is my hope that one day I can wake up and see social isolation and stigma eradicated. But, until then, it is our responsibility to fight against it. Not only for my brother, but for the millions of Americans who experience mental illness and stigma every year. Not just for right now, but for the future to be a better and more accepting world. 

Ashley Virnan is currently attending The University of Southern California, Mastering in Social Work. As a member of NAMI, she is incredibly supportive in all the work that NAMI does, as it is very dear to her. Her hopes as an aspiring social worker are to help change the views that people have on mental health, to help those affected by the stigma associated with it and to change our world, day by day. 


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