Stigma hurts lives and stigma kills.
Mental health stigma.
Do your work to learn your biases.
How Stigma Harms by Lize Brittin
In May of 2019, Amber Nicole was attacked and beaten badly outside of a bar in Denver, Colorado. Her jaw was broken in several places, and she suffered nerve damage and partial paralysis on one side of her face.
Her crime? Amber Nicole identifies as transgender.
Nobody watching her being beaten that night came to her aid. Her friend was eventually able to get her into their car and to the hospital, but she has been seriously injured and will likely carry the emotional scars of the attack with her for a lifetime.
This is an extreme case of an individual enactment of stigma, a criminal attack against someone seen as "lesser than" or flawed. Stigma doesn’t always lead to hate crimes and violence. Offenses against victims can be more subtle: dirty looks, rude comments, general discrimination, taunting, or neglect. In certain kinds of situations, "courtesy stigma" can occur, wherein those close to the one being judged are also stigmatized. This can lead to isolation of both those being labeled and their friends and family members. In short, stigma affects everyone, from those who hold it to those who experience it to those who witness it.
Stigma can be a powerful weapon that negatively affects the self-esteem of both those who experience it and those who see it occur. Self-labeling and what we tell ourselves about who we are contribute either positively or negatively to our sense of self. We can have a positive self-narrative or one that tears down our self-esteem. Often, we internalize the negative comments or stereotypes that others specifically heap on us or that we know prevail in society at large, and wind up engaging in pessimistic self-dialogue. This can lead to feelings of shame, a fear of reaching out when in need, and a reluctance to defend oneself and others.
One in five Americans deals in some way with mental-health conditions. Stigma is primarily based on sweeping generalizations and usually incorrect assumptions. Flawed ideas related to mental health can be especially unfavorable, and often lead to prejudice and marginalization. We often don’t see how quickly poor opinions of others can lead to the abuse of human rights. We criminalize addicts and the mentally ill and treat those who suffer as if what they experience comes down to a simple choice, forgetting that many factors contribute to the development of mental-health issues. A genetic component or predisposition, environmental factors, and possible underlying medical conditions can create the perfect storm when it comes to the development of mental illness, addiction or both. Sadly, the same mistreatment often occurs in regard to those who are simply "different."
In the realm of eating disorders, those who suffer are stigmatized in two ways, the physical and the mental. They also deal with self-stigma and body-image problems. Many who have life-threatening illnesses don’t perceive themselves accurately, and feel that they aren’t sick enough to seek treatment or insist they don’t deserve help. Their feelings of insecurity and self-loathing can run so deep that they neglect the medical help they so desperately need and deserve.
Therapy provides those in need with the tools to deal with stigma and its far-reaching effects. Therapists are in a position to teach those who are affected by injustice how to rise above any put-downs and bullying. As Rebecca Lombardo says, it is essential to keep talking mental health. This is the only way we can begin to address the harm that mental-health stigma or stigma in general causes. Mental illness is not weakness of any kind.
Individuals take a great risk when they delay or deny themselves treatment as a result of the negative views associated with mental health issues. The side effect of refusing help can lead to a deterioration of physical and mental health, poor self-image, feelings of isolation, and even suicide. In other words, when a person who’s struggling doesn’t reach out, it’s a potentially dangerous, but all too easy, form of inaction.
What is needed are more safe environments in which people who are struggling feel supported enough to open up about their situations. Sharing relieves some of the burden of living with mental illness and reduces the shame around struggling. There is no shame in our struggles. All humans have issues of some kind. Removing stigma entirely might be impossible, but we can create more and more welcoming pockets of shelter from the abuse of others.
In order to create healing around deep-rooted biases, it’s up to all of us to take a look at the beliefs we have and learn how to become more tolerant and open-minded toward both others and ourselves. Dominant beliefs in society need not rule how we view the world. It’s time for us to learn new ways of seeing each other. We don’t have to buy into the stigmas others create and project. Mental-health treatment doesn’t have to be about attaching labels to everyone. Who we are goes deeper than that, and we all need to recognize that we are not our illnesses. We are more than our disorders, and we should never, ever be oppressed or mistreated for showing vulnerability.