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Ableism, negative attitudes, stereotypes and stigma (fact sheet)

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Discrimination against people with mental health or addiction disabilities is often linked to prejudicial attitudes, negative stereotyping, and the overall stigma surrounding these disabilities. All of these concepts are interrelated.

Negative attitudes, stereotypes and stigma toward people with mental health disabilities or addictions are often rooted in an “ableist” belief system. “Ableism” refers to attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. Ableism is:

…analogous to racism, sexism or ageism, [and] sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, or of less inherent value than others. Ableism may be conscious or unconscious, and may be embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society. It can limit the opportunities of persons with disabilities and reduce their inclusion in the life of their communities. [1]

Stereotypes are generalizations about people based on assumptions about qualities and characteristics of the group they belong to. Common stereotypes about people with mental health disabilities are that they are violent, or that they don’t have the ability to make decisions in their own best interests, even if this isn’t the case. These perceptions may result in people or organizations having overprotective attitudes and practices that create barriers for people with mental health disabilities.

Prejudice refers to deeply held negative perceptions and feelings about people with mental health or addiction disabilities.

A public opinion poll conducted by the Canadian Medical Association found that one in four Canadians (27%) said they would be afraid being around someone with a serious mental illness.[2]

Stigma refers to a person having an attribute that “marks them as different and leads them to be devalued in the eyes of others.”[3]

Where stigma, prejudicial attitudes and stereotyping result in discrimination, they will violate the Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code). Organizations and individuals have a legal duty under the Code to not discriminate against people with mental health or addiction disabilities, and to eliminate discrimination when it happens.

People with certain types of disabilities face a great deal of stigma. People with schizophrenia or drug addictions may experience particularly negative attitudes from others based on beliefs about dangerousness, anti-social behaviour and/or risk.

Stigma, negative attitudes and stereotypes can lead to inaccurate judgements of people’s personal characteristics. They may also lead organizations to develop policies, procedures and decision-making practices that exclude people with mental health or addiction disabilities or keep them on the margins.

Example: A municipality developed a bylaw restricting the location of group homes for people with disabilities because neighbours don’t want tenants with mental health or addiction disabilities living in their neighbourhood. This could violate the Code.

Negative attitudes, stereotyping and stigma can also lead to harassment of people with mental health or addiction disabilities in the form of negative comments, social isolation and unwanted conduct (including mental health profiling) from employers, landlords, co-workers or service providers.

Because of the stigma around mental health disabilities and addictions, many people may be afraid to tell other people about their disability. They may worry about being labelled, experiencing negative attitudes from others, losing their jobs or housing, or experiencing unequal treatment in services. Fear of being discriminated against can also mean that people do not seek support for a mental health issue or addiction.

Preventing and responding to discrimination and harassment

Organizations must take steps to address negative attitudes, stereotypes and stigma to make sure they do not lead to discriminatory behaviour toward people with mental health disabilities or addictions.

Education on human rights works best alongside a strong proactive strategy to prevent and remove barriers to equal participation, and effective policies and procedures for addressing human rights issues that do arise. Education on mental health alone is not necessarily enough to change people’s behaviour or an organization’s culture. A complete strategy to prevent and address human rights issues should include:

  • A barrier prevention, review and removal plan
  • Anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies
  • An education and training program
  • An internal complaints procedure
  • An accommodation policy and procedure.

For more information, see the OHRC’s Policy on preventing discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addictions and A policy primer: Guide to developing human rights policies and procedures, available online at

[1] Law Commission of Ontario, Advancing Equality for Persons with Disabilities Through Law, Policy and Practice: A Draft Framework (March 2012) at 3, available on-line at:

[2] Canadian Medical Association, 8th Annual National Report Card on Health Care. August 2008 at 27; available online at:

[3] Brenda Major and Laurie T. O’Brien,“The social psychology of stigma”, Annual Review of Psychology 2005 56:393-421 at 395.