Theories of Stigma and Mental Illness

Nursing theories

open access articles on nursing theories and models

Theories of STIGMA and MENTAL Illness

Key Points

  • According to Goffman, stigma is “an attribute that is deeply discrediting” that reduces someone “from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one”.1
  • Stigma refers to the discrediting, devaluing, and shaming of a person because of characteristics or attributes that they possess.2
  • Stigma and discrimination are significant barriers to the kind of community opportunities that are necessary to help people attain life goals.3 

  • For millennia, people with mental illnesses have faced stigma across various cultures and communities, which has a significant impact on their social interactions and psychological well-being.4

  • One of the first theories on social stigma which attracted increased scientific attention is labelling theory by Thomas Scheff.5 Theory states that there is a two-stage relationship between abnormal behaviours and diagnostic labels. First, a diagnosis of primary deviance—a term Scheff uses to describe actions that contravene implicit norms—may result from such behaviours. Second, this label may trigger reactions in others that lead to secondary deviance, a behavioural disturbance that is a contributing factor to mental illness.6

  • According to the modified labelling theory of mental illness, when a person is diagnosed with a mental illness, cultural notions associated with the mentally ill become personally relevant and generate unfavorable self-evaluations.7

  • Status characteristics theory (SCT) has been used to predict how status-valued characteristics affect the perceptions, attributions, and interactions among individuals in small group contexts.8

  • Types of stigma related to mental illness may be classified into public stigma, self-stigma, structural stigma and stigma by courtesy or affiliate stigma.2

  • Public stigma is the reaction that the general population has to people with mental illness.Self-stigma is the prejudice which people with mental illness turn against themselves. Stigma may be understood in terms of three components: stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.9

  • Stigma has cognitive, emotional, and behavioural dimensions.10


  1. Goffman E. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs NJ:Prentice Hall; 1963.
  2. Subu MA, Wati DF, Netrida N, Priscilla V, Dias JM, Abraham MS, et al. Types of stigma experienced by patients withmental illness and mental health nurses in Indonesia: a qualitative content analysis. Int J Ment Health Syst. 2021 Oct 18;15(1):77.
  3. Corrigan PW. Empowerment and serious mental illness: treatment partnerships and community opportunities. Psychiatr Q[Internet]. 2002 Fall [cited 2024 May 30];73(3). Available from:
  4. Rössler W. The stigma of mental disorders. EMBO Rep. 2016 Sep;17(9):1250–3.
  5. Bean P. Psychiatrists’ assessments of mental illness. A comparison of some aspects of Thomas Scheff’s approach tolabelling theory. Br J Psychiatry J Ment Sci. 1979 Aug;135:122–8.
  6. Ruscio J. Labeling Theory. In: The Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology [Internet]. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd;2015 [cited 2024 May 30]. p. 1–6. Available from:
  7. Kroska A, Harkness SK. Exploring the Role of Diagnosis in the Modified Labeling Theory of Mental Illness. SocPsychol Q. 2008 Jun 1;71(2):193–208.
  8. Grow A, Takács K, Pál J. Status Characteristics and Ability Attributions in Hungarian School Classes: AnExponential Random Graph Approach. Soc Psychol Q. 2016 Jun;79(2):156–67.
  9. Corrigan PW, Watson AJ. Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry. 2002Feb;1(1):16–20.
  10. Ahmedani BK. Mental Health Stigma: Society, Individuals, and the Profession. J Soc Work Values Ethics.2011;8(2):4-1-4–16.
This page was last updated on: 31/05/2024