The Power of a Stereotype

Try as we might, none of us are immune to stereotyping. It’s an inescapable part of being human and serves an important function. For instance, if I were to say, “picture a chair” what image comes to mind?

Did you envision a wooden seat with four legs and a back? You probably didn’t picture a beach chair or recliner, both of which are also types of chairs; albeit less common. Well, that type of generalization is a form of stereotype. Stereotyping is a sort of mental shortcut, it allows us to spend less time conceptualizing by drawing upon past experience to inform our thinking. Often stereotyping can be helpful, but what happens when our assumptions are inaccurate? The recliner probably won’t be offended if you assume it has four legs and is made of wood, but when it comes to stereotyping people this can inevitably lead to harmful consequences.

The Problem with Stereotypes

Mental health consumers know all too well how strong stereotypes and stigma against mental illness can be. Stereotyping is a powerful force and can cause all sorts of negative effects, both on an individual level and within larger society. Embarrassment, shame, guilt, social and emotional isolation, and suicidality are among the common negative effects experienced as a result of stigma. In more extreme cases, stereotyping can lead to overt discriminatory acts such as hostility, segregation, and even war.

How to Break Stereotypes

Mental illness is so often misunderstood, particularly by those who haven’t been personally affected. By showing the personal side of mental illness, people can start to see a more complete picture. Psychologist, Paul Bloom, suggests we combat stereotypes by telling individual stories:

“In general, stories can turn anonymous strangers into people who matter, and the idea that we care about people when we focus on them as individuals is an idea which has shown up across history.”

Bloom goes on to describe the basis of this argument using psychology research studies and quotes from famous figures throughout time. For more information on Dr. Bloom’s research behind the power of storytelling, check out his Ted Talk.

Telling your story can be intimidating. Too often stories about mental illness go untold, but the very thing that people tend to avoid is the same thing that serves as our best weapon against stereotyping and prejudice. By adding a face and name to your story, you can dispel particular stereotypes and broaden others’ views of what it means to be a person living with mental illness. As Bloom points out, “It’s possible that by extending our sympathies to an individual, they can spread to the group that the individual belongs to.” So, although stereotypes are powerful, so are our stories. Thero encourages people to share their stories and learn about their own stereotypes. You can share yours by becoming a part of the Be Heard Campaign at and explore your stigma by visiting


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Madeline Borkenhagen is a graduate from the Master of Social Work Program at San Diego State University. Her passion for counseling stemmed from experiences with loved ones who benefitted from therapy for their mental health challenges.[/author_info] [/author]