The Difference Between Stigma vs. Stereotype

The terms stigma and stereotype are often used to describe negative behaviors in society that are directed towards specific groups of people. When a certain thing is attached to a stigma, it is associated with feelings of shame.

Stigmas are often driven by negative stereotypes, which are an oversimplified and popular belief or idea about a particular group of people or person that is often untrue or only partially true.

In society, stigmas and stereotypes are often involved in shaming or discriminating against people who have a mental illness, certain disabilities, or are a part of a certain sexuality, race, or religion.

Both stereotypes and stigmas can have powerful holds on society as a whole and can leave a mark on certain people or groups that leave them feeling ashamed or in danger for simply being. Read on to find out more about stigmas and stereotypes and how they differ from one another.

Stigma vs. Stereotype Definitions 

The Oxford dictionary defines stigma as, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person,” whereas a stereotype is defined as, “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

While the two definitions seem similar, and they are, there are some marked differences between the two. A stigma is always negative and develops because of a stereotype. Stereotypes, although often wrong or partially wrong, aren’t always negative.

For example, there is a stigma surrounding mental health that has made it difficult for many people to seek out professional care when they need it at the risk of being shamed or judged based on their condition.

This stigma is enforced by the stereotype that people with mental illness are psychotic, hostile, or incompetent even though that is not the case.

The Development of Stigmas and Stereotypes

Stigmas are underlined by stereotypes, so they typically develop after a stereotype has been widely accepted.


According to the American Psychiatric Association, stigmas that develop because of perpetuated stereotypes can lead to discrimination.

Discrimination is the unfair treatment of groups of people because of held beliefs surrounding their health status, sex, age, or race. Discrimination can be both direct and indirect and can come in the form of:

  • Excluding certain groups of people from things such as rental housing, employment, or other services.
  • Imposing extra measures on certain groups of people that do not apply to the rest of the general population.


Direct discrimination occurs when done directly from one person to a specific group of people, and indirect discrimination is when a person is discriminatory on behalf of someone else.

For example, a person that owns a rental property excludes a person with a disability from living at the property. That is a form of direct discrimination. A manager of a rental property that has been told to screen people with disabilities is an example of indirect discrimination.

Another example of discrimination is when an older adult applies for a job that they are qualified for. Since they are older than other candidates, the employer decides to hire someone with fewer qualifications because they are younger. That is a form of age discrimination.

Cultural Perpetuation 

Cultural perpetuation is a way in which certain stigmas and stereotypes continue to pass from one generation to the next. This type of perpetuation of certain long-held beliefs or notions surrounding stigmas and stereotypes is what gives them their longevity.  

How Does Cultural Perpetuation Advance Stereotypes?

The longer a culture supports a specific stereotype or stigma, the more staying power it has.

Studies suggest that stereotypes are perpetuated because of the cultural schema theory, which is a theory based on the idea that people use certain classifications to help them understand cultures other than their own.

When they do this with misinformation that they have been taught about specific groups of people, they keep the cycle of stereotypical discrimination going.

The idea of cultural schema can also be used to help people justify certain negative experiences they’ve had because they connect them to long-held negative stereotypical beliefs.   

Consequences of Stigma and Stereotypes 

The vast collection of stigmas and stereotypes still prevalent in today’s society leads to negative consequences for the people and groups involved. These consequences range depending on the group being stigmatized and the result of the discrimination.

On Marginalized Groups 

Marginalized populations are groups of people that are continuously subjected to discrimination and exclusion because of who they are. Some examples of marginalized groups include:

  • People who belong to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, pansexual, two-spirit (2S), androgynous and asexual (LGBTQQIP2SAA) community
  • Minority races
  • Older adults
  • People with disabilities or chronic health conditions
  • Those who have immigrated to the United States
  • People who do not speak English or have learned English as a second language
  • People who fall into a low-income category

These groups are marginalized because there is an uneven distribution of power between social groups and that is largely due to stereotypical beliefs and stigmas. The consequences of this power imbalance lead to many challenges and discrepancies, such as:

  • Less emotional support
  • Increased feelings of anger and a loss of control over one's own life
  • An increase in negative interactions within society
  • Higher rates of substance abuse
  • An increased risk of both psychological and physiological disease or illness
  • Higher rates of suicide

Around Mental Health 

The stigma surrounding mental health has been slowly decreasing in recent years, however, it is still going strong and those with mental health issues are still subject to discrimination. Because of this, people with mental health issues can experience:

  • A reduced sense of hope
  • Lower self-esteem
  • An increase in their symptoms
  • Difficulties maintaining social relationships accompanied by social isolation
  • A lessened chance that they will stick to their treatment plan or seek help for their disorder
  • Difficulties in the workplace or issues finding opportunities to participate in gainful employment, studies, or school activities
  • Physical violence or harassment
  • Bullying
  • An inability to access health insurance that covers the cost of their treatment

Self-Stigma and Mental Illness

Because of the societal stigma attached to mental health disorders, many people with psychiatric disorders often self-stigmatize. This means that they have a negative attitude towards themselves. Having self-stigmatizing attitudes have been shown to decrease a person's likelihood of recovering from their mental illness.  

Around Substance Abuse 

Many people with addiction or substance abuse disorder often find themselves heavily stigmatized. People look down on those who use substances, and because of this, certain consequences plague people with addiction. They can include:

  • Having a more difficult time reaching out for help out of fear of being judged or getting into trouble
  • Hiding their use of drugs or using alone which can be dangerous
  • A lowered quality of life because it can be more challenging to find housing or a job
  • Having a difficult time getting proper health care
  • Overdose

When people suffer from addiction, they can experience three types of stigma: self, social, and structural.

Self-stigma is when they begin to have negative attitudes towards themselves which can increase drug use, cause low-self-esteem, and avoid reaching out for help. Social stigma comes from outside sources and often leads to self-stigma.

Structural is imposed on people with addiction by healthcare providers, people who offer social services, workplaces, and government organizations. All three types are what cause the aforementioned consequences.

Advocating Against Negative Stigma 

There are many things that can be done to help reduce stigma across different groups. Becoming an ally with groups that experience stereotypical discrimination is the first step in understanding how they are affected and what needs to be done to change how society views certain communities.

What the Law Says 

There are various laws in place that are designed to keep discrimination from occurring, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still happen.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act was developed to help protect people with disabilities from discrimination. That being said, not all laws that are in place to end stigma and discrimination based on stigma are adhered to all of the time.

What You Can Do 

There are several things that can be done to help reduce stigma. They include:

  • Educational programs: Anti-stigma education interventions can present factual information to a wide audience to help reduce the stigma that surrounds a certain group of people.
  • Mental Health Literacy Campaigns: Similar to the educational program strategy, mental health literacy campaigns aim to implement the sharing of mental health information to help positively change society’s knowledge and attitude towards those with mental illnesses.
  • Contact: People with stereotypical views rarely come into contact with the people that are a part of the group being stigmatized in their minds. To reduce stigma, people have to overcome the divide and spend more time with those in stigmatized groups.
  • Protest and Advocacy: Protests have been highly effective strategies for civil rights changes. Participating in peaceful protests with those who have experienced discrimination and their allies can help you impose change at the grassroots level. 


Stigmas and stereotypes are still rampant in the United States. Although the two are not the same thing, they both develop into discriminatory behaviors towards people that do not deserve it.

While there is change to be made, some groups that have been stigmatized for much of modern history are beginning to see the tides change. The way to ensure that progress continues to be made is through becoming an ally and lawful advocacy.

A Word From Verywell 

Belonging to a group of people that are constantly discriminated against because of a widely accepted stereotype can be difficult. The consequences surrounding stigmas are damaging to both a single person and society as a whole.

The longer people hold onto stigmas and pass them down through generations, the further we get as a society when it comes to being collective, inclusive, and providing equity to all. To do your part, you can become an advocate for change.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there different types of stigma?

    There are three main types of stigma: self, social, and structural. Self-stigma occurs when a person is convinced that the negative beliefs of others are valid and begins to see themselves in the way that those who stigmatize them do. Social is when society stigmatizes an individual or group of people as a whole, causing feelings of shame. Finally, structural stigmas are perpetuated by workplaces, social services, and healthcare providers. These can be the most damaging because they often lead people to refrain from seeking help.

  • Are stereotypes always negative?

    While a stigma is always negative, stereotypes are not. They can be both positive and negative. That being said, both negative and positive stereotypes can have negative consequences because they are often untrue.

  • What influences stigmas vs. stereotypes?

    Stereotypes influence the development of stigmas and stigmas influence discrimination. While the three are different in definition, they are all closely tied together. You cannot have a stigma without a perpetuated stereotype. 

  • Which diseases are often stigmatized?

    People most often hear about mental disorders being highly stigmatized, but they are not the only health condition that is attached to negative beliefs and attitudes. Other disorders that are or have been heavily stigmatized include HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, epilepsy, substance use disorders, and venereal diseases.

12 Sources
Verywell Health 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.
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By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.