Can Neuroscience Help End the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness?

The field of mental illness as a whole refers to disorders that manifest internally. Mental illness can appear in many different forms, all of which are different disorders. Although each disorder has its own unique symptoms and treatments, all mental illness can be linked to a breakdown within the brain. The brain is an internal organ in our body and, although we can alter brain function, we can’t control it entirely. Our brain only makes up about two percent of our body weight, yet uses twenty percent of our body’s energy and twenty percent of our body’s oxygen (Bethesda, 4). The brain is a complex organ in which hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions occur every second, yet just one abnormality in the brain can lead to a chain reaction of breakdowns that interfere with an individual’s ability to function.

How Mental Illness Develops Within the Brain

The brain is a unique organ that works twenty-four hours a day to control our entire body. The brain sends billions of messages to different neurons, which enable different functions of the body. Because the brain is such a meticulous yet crucial organ in our bodies, one abnormality in any region of the brain can lead to mental illness. A gene abnormality, thickness of the insular cortex, thickness in the frontal lobe, and failure of neurons communicating, are all examples of simple abnormalities that develop, yet have an immense impact on an individual’s ability to function (Radiological Society of North America ,1). Abnormalities in one’s genes can lead to a disorder such as autism, thickness of the insular cortex and frontal lobe  has been linked to depression, and the failure of neurons communicating results in messages being lost (Weir, 30). These messages control our physical function, thoughts, and feelings, and as a result an abnormality in any region of the brain can lead to mental illness.

Although mental illness develops within the brain, many different components of one’s life can contribute to this development and be a factor. These factors are categorized as biological, cognitive and sociocultural. Sociocultural factors refers to the impact that society and one’s environment can have on one’s mental health. Next are cognitive factors, which refer to who we are as a person and how we think and function. Lastly, biological factors can result in abnormalities in the biological makeup of an individual. All three of these factors play a role in every single individual’s life daily, but each individual has different factors, resulting in a different reaction.

No individual is immune to mental illness, no matter what race, age, gender, ethnicity, etc. they are. We all have a brain, which makes us all susceptible developing a mental illness. The component that makes individuals with mental illness different from every others is a breakdown over which that person has no control. For this reason, it’s important that we work to stay educated and educate others about how mental illness develop within the brain.

This video gives us insight into the hardships that individuals experiencing mental illness go through daily, as well as how it affects that individuals loved ones.


Mental illness cannot be prevented and often too cannot be controlled by the individual experiencing it. Mental illness and brain function can be affected by things such as alcohol, smoking, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, and brain injuries, but these components independently don’t cause mental illness (Bhandari, 1). As I have witnessed in my own community, mental illness is frustrating for individuals experiencing it because they have limited or no control of their mind and body. Because I’ve seen this struggle within my community I’m going to use social media platforms to share this presentation with those who follow my accounts, which is primarily individuals in my community. My hope in doing this is that individuals will willingly read and learn about mental illness, particularly how mental illness arises. These individuals also have no control over the development of their disorders, which can lead to more frustration. Although individuals don’t have control over the development of their disorder, as soon as they are diagnosed, a negative stigma is often automatically associated. For these reasons, it’s crucial that individuals who don’t have mental illness view the topic with an open mind and be empathetic to those who do indeed have mental illness, and what they are experiencing.

“What do you want individuals to understand about mental illness?”

“I wish people understood that sometimes I just can’t be strong anymore on the outside.”

“being outgoing doesn’t stop me from getting paralyzed by thinking about all of the ‘what ifs.”- Carries S, 37, MN

It’s not because I’m lazy or don’t want to do it, it’s because I actually can’t.”- Shannon C, 38, FL

It’s a minute by minute battle sometimes that is exhausting and all consuming.- M.P, 34, Western Australia

Often I question every little thing I do. Because of all this people think I’m not listening, that I think they’re not important or I’m just not trying hard enough to be attentive and keep everything together and focused. If they only know how hard I’m trying!- Heather N, 30, Canada

I want to believe them but I just don’t see myself the way other people do.”- Michelle R, 28, CA

“Unfortunately many people’s only experience with mental health issues is when someone’s illness is not treated or under control so they only see the really unpleasant side effects that can manifest. When the illness is treated, we are just like everyone else.”- Melissa L, 25, NV

Taking Action

Over the past ten years the field of psychology and the knowledge surrounding mental illness has grown immensely. Along with all the positive developments, a negative stigma too has developed. How can we work to change this stigma? This stigma roots from the uncertainty that surrounds mental illness, due to the fact that the field is still developing and due to it’s complexity. The negative aspects of the field are often highlighted or magnified because these tend to be the most talked about elements. When individuals don’t fully understand what a mental illness is and what is going on in someone’s body, they tend to generalize it. Common misconceptions about mental illness are that individuals who have a disorder are dangerous and individuals are less capable, however this isn’t the case.We can work together to squash these stigmas  and conceptions by educating people about what mental illness is and how it develops.You can help educate people by simply passing on the link to this web page or sharing what you have learned with individuals in your own community.


Works Cited

Anderson, Charlotte Hilton. “30 Things People With Mental Illnesses Want You To Understand.” Women’s Health, 2 May 2017, Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Bethesda, MD. “Information about Mental Illness and the Brain.” National Institue of Health, 2007, Accessed 2 Apr. 2019.

Bhandari, Smitha, editor. “Causes of mental ilness.” WebMD, 20 May 2018, Accessed 1 Apr. 2019.

Radiological Society of North America. “MRI uncovers brain abnormalities in people with depression, anxiety.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 November 2017. <>

Weir, Kristen. “The Roots of Mental Illness.” American Psychological Association, June 2012, Accessed 23 Apr. 2019.

“What happens to children with autism, when they become adults? | Kerry Magro | TEDxMorristown.” YouTube, uploaded by TedxTalks, 9 Feb. 2016, Accessed 4 Apr. 2019.

Share this project
  1. April 25, 2019 by Heather .Hersey

    Hi Olivia! I hope that you share your project with your school to show how important it is for ALL students to learn some brain science. How do you think this might be incorporated into the curriculum? Thank you for your work!

    • April 25, 2019 by Olivia Hebert

      I think that a great way to incorporate this information into the curriculum could be through psychology courses at schools that offer it, and for schools that don’t it could be included in the health curriculum. If this information were to be included in a psychology curriculum this could become a neuroscience unit. If this information were to be included within a health class I feel that it would best fit in when discussing things such as eating disorders, addiction, etc.

  2. April 25, 2019 by Camille Neutz

    Great work on this project! I loved the ideas that you put out there. One question that this bring us for me is, what are specific steps that I can take to help change the stigma around mental health?

    • April 25, 2019 by Olivia Hebert

      A specific step you, and anyone else, can take is to educate other individuals and groups. If more people are aware of how mental illness actually develops, it’s less likely that those individuals will judge or place a stigma on individuals with mental illness.

  3. April 25, 2019 by Caroline Glahn

    This is really awesome! I am so glad that you are going to spread your message on social media platforms because I think that’s the best way to get things out. I hope that you will share the link to your project so that people will look at it because it’s really effective! Do you think that awareness is the only way to remove the stigma? Or are there other ways to change one’s mindset about it?

    • April 26, 2019 by Olivia Hebert

      I do indeed believe that awareness is the only way to squash a stigma. My reasoning for this is that the only way for a stigma to end is for it to be proved wrong, and the only way to do this is to inform individuals on why the stigma is inaccurate and spread awareness.

  4. April 26, 2019 by Juliana.Shank

    Great project! You clearly illustrated the impact of this problem. This reminded of the Lincoln Douglas Debate State Topic, which was focused around whether or not illegal drug use should be treated as a criminal justice or public health issue. I learned a lot about the fact that addiction is a disease and not a moral weakness. Maybe your advocacy could also look at how we punish those with mental health issues? By the way, check out my project – it is also about mental health, but how mental health patients get access to healthcare. I think your project could give a scientific basis to make sure insurance companies treat mental health patients equally! Here is the link:

  5. April 26, 2019 by Jane

    Olivia, you did a great job talking about the different impacts in stigma and discussing how viewing the neuroscience behind mental illnesses could help to squash the stigma. For my project, I also focused on conquering the stigma surrounding mental illness, specifically depression, and discussed the true impact that awareness and empathy can have on the stigma. I loved hearing another perspective on a potential way to decrease the stigma and I think you did a really great job on all of your research! My project focused specifically on high school students, so I was wondering, what do you think would be the most affective way to spread this information regarding neuroscience to school communities?

    • April 26, 2019 by Olivia Hebert

      I think that high schools are one of the most important places that this information needs to be presented. Individuals often find Neuroscience intimidating because of it’s complexity, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The best way for this information to be delivered in high schools would either be to include it in the curriculum, which I discussed above, or something that would have even more impact could be a guest speaker. At my own schools we have guest speakers regularly, and when the information that the speaker presents is relevant to the lives of teens and is relatable individuals stay more engaged and the talk has a much greater affect, than those that pertain to unrelatable things. For these reasons I believe having a guest speaker at a high school discussing this would be extremely impactful. This speaker could either be a neuroscientist or someone who has experienced mental illness and studied it’s development, or maybe even both together!

  6. April 26, 2019 by Addie Anderson

    I think it is always a great idea to learn about the things that directly effect you, and this is certainly one I think all students and schools should see and learn and know! Great job.

  7. April 27, 2019 by Rachel.Dulski

    Olivia, thank you for sharing this perspective. I felt like I was really able to empathize after watching the video “What happens to children with Autism when they become adults.” I think it is a really good idea to use social media to promote these ideas. What specifically do you want schools to teach about neuroscience? Do you think it will have an immediate impact on destigmatizing mental illness and even allow more support for mental health?

  8. April 28, 2019 by Olivia Hebert

    I want schools to discuss brain abnormalities and the root, as well as result of these abnormalities. I do believe that this would have an immediate impact on destigmatizing mental illness because it’s eye opening and untalked about, which causes for an immediate response.

  9. April 29, 2019 by Emma.Sheldon

    Awesome job, Olivia. I like how you voiced the stigma that “individuals who have a disorder are dangerous and individuals are less capable”. I think this happens often at my school, especially concerning students who suffer from ADHD. They separate kids who have ADHD and kids who don’t from a young age (so that they go through most of elementary school testing and learning separately). I find this a bit appalling and I’m sure you do as well. What would you recommend to do to try and change this practice?

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