Younger Generations Have Less Stigma Surrounding Depression, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • The stigma surrounding depression has decreased significantly in the past 20 years.
  • People are more willing to have someone living with depression work with them, be their neighbor, and marry someone in their family.
  • The lessening of stigma may make it easier for people dealing with depression to acknowledge the issue and seek help for it.

Stigma, which is the prejudice and discrimination frequently attached to mental illness, can keep people from seeking treatment and acknowledging that they need help. Since 2011, there has been an increase in the percentage of adults who haven't gotten the help they need to deal with their mental health issues. But a new study provides some hope that a shift in thinking has led to a more mainstream acceptance of depression.

Published in JAMA Network Open, the study found that people are more willing to interact with those who are dealing with depression than they were 20 years ago. Younger generations of Americans show less desire to distance themselves from people with depression in social, professional, and family situations.

The greater level of acceptance of people dealing with depression may make them more willing to talk about the condition and find resources to help them cope. The findings may also help mental health professionals understand why older clients who are still wrestling with the stigma of depression may have more trouble opening up.

The Study

Researchers compiled information from several US National Stigma Studies with results from 1996, 2006, and 2018 based on responses from a total of over 4000 participants. In-person interviewers asked questions to determine public perception of those who identified as having schizophrenia, depression, and alcohol dependence. The responses painted a picture of stigma associated with the conditions, and how that stigma impacted the way individuals with mental health conditions are treated.

“One of the major aspects of stigma is inclusion/exclusion, which is referred to in the research as ‘social distance’; that is, the willingness to interact with the person described in the case,” explains lead study author Bernice Pescosolido, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research. “We asked whether they were willing to socialize with them, be their friend, have them as neighbors, work closely on the job with them, and have them marry into their family,” she notes.

The data showed that while previous generations had negative perceptions, people are now more willing to embrace those with depression than they were 20 years ago. For example, in 1996, 57% of Americans were not willing to have someone with depression marry into their family. In 2018, the number dropped to 40%. Similarly, there was also a decrease in a lack of willingness to work with someone dealing with depression by almost 20%. The desire not to socialize with someone with depression fell by more than 16%.

Jeni Woodfin, LMFT

What that means for people who have depression and mental health issues is it’s easier to talk about it without fear of people creating distance between themselves and you. It’s not seen as a bad scary thing anymore.

— Jeni Woodfin, LMFT

“What that means for people who have depression and mental health issues is it’s easier to talk about it without fear of people creating distance between themselves and you. It’s not seen as a bad scary thing anymore,” states Jeni Woodfin, LMFT, J. Woodfin Counseling.

There were some study limitations. Survey responses indicate a change in attitudes, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to behavior. The study also focused on perceptions of those with mental health struggles at the onset of the issues. Opinions could change if questions were geared towards the recovery process.

Interestingly, the stigma surrounding schizophrenia and alcohol dependence remained the same and even increased in some cases. However, for people who just want to receive the help they need for depression without stigma or judgement, the change in attitudes is promising.

The Impact of Stigma

Public perception of a condition comes from a number of sources. Fear and a lack of understanding contribute significantly to mental health stigma. Media portrayals can further enhance the image of someone struggling with mental illness who is out of control and dangerous.

Bernice Pescosolido, PhD

[S]tigma discourages others from going into the mental health professions, from funding the research to find new treatments, and from passing legislation to improve the mental health system.

— Bernice Pescosolido, PhD

These factors can lead to three types of stigmas. Public stigma evolves from prejudiced, negative attitudes toward mental health issues on a societal level. Self-stigma is when the person with the issue experiences shame and guilt because of their condition. Institutional stigma has to do with policies and procedures affecting the ability to get mental health services. Each type of stigma negatively impacts the person who needs help the most.

 “Stigma affects people in two very different ways.  It makes them afraid to seek help because they are afraid that they will be labelled, seen as 'less than' by others, and be rejected and excluded,” explains Dr. Pescosolido. “But, less well considered, is that stigma makes it harder for people to actually find treatment because stigma discourages others from going into the mental health professions, from funding the research to find new treatments, and from passing legislation to improve the mental health system,” she adds.

Reducing the Stigma

Experts say that although they don’t have concrete reasons for reduction in stigma toward depression, several factors may be at play. Younger generations seem to have more willingness to embrace their issues. Support meetings and online chat groups allow people dealing with issues like anxiety and depression to come together and feel united in their journey. In addition, celebrities have come forward and discussed their mental health struggles, removing some of the taboo from the subject.

“We also are talking about it differently, [saying] ‘I have depression’, which separates depression from our being. I am me, and it’s a thing I am experiencing, as opposed to, I am a depressed person,” Woodfin notes.

The more depression is discussed and portrayed in a normalized fashion, the more people seem willing to embrace their own issues and have compassion for others who may also be struggling.

Getting Help That's Needed

People dealing with depression don’t have to deal with it alone. There are a number of ways to get help. Talking to a therapist or counselor can not only give you the outlet you need to share the source of the depression, but also provide helpful solutions. Talking to family and friends can also provide much-needed support. Mindfulness books, exercises, and even apps are designed to help someone dealing with a depressive state. And with the lessening of stigma, society elevating the importance of mental health may be the best treatment of all.

“If Millennials and Gen Xers are more open to understand that mental health IS health, then we should look to them as leaders of change,” Dr. Pescosolido states. “We need to be nimble in how we understand and respond to the prejudice and discrimination that surrounds mental illness,” she concludes.

What This Means For You

Mental health is just as important as physical health. If you are dealing with mental health issues, you are not alone. It’s important to seek help and support as you navigate your journey. As the study results note, societal willingness to embrace those with depression opens the door for compassion, understanding, and even resources for treatment.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pescosolido BA, Halpern-Manners A, Luo L, Perry B. Trends in public stigma of mental illness in the US, 1996-2018JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(12):e2140202. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.40202

  2. Mental Health America. The state of mental health in America.

  3. American Psychiatric Association. Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against people with mental illness.