1. a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation.
A. a mental or physical mark that is characteristic of a defect or disease.
In today’s society, the word “stigma” is often thrown around in conjunction with mental health. It’s become so commonplace that it’s almost lost its meaning; people rarely think of the actual definition of the word, and why it should be so impactful. The above definition is from Webster’s Dictionary, and as the reader can clearly see, it does not describe a pleasant scenario. The term “stigma” comes from the Greek word of the same spelling, and originally meant “A mark or puncture.” In that era, there were certain crimes that would result in the punishment of a physical sign; the book The Scarlet Letter is a clear example of this. A hot branding iron would be used to create a symbol of some sort to signify the crime in order to create shame in the person for the rest of their life. Think about that for a moment, and really let it sink in. The stigma surrounding mental health is very real, and though some would say that it’s far easier to deal with than an actual branded stigma, that is not the case; for many who deal with mental health issues, it’s as shaming to them as if they had that brand, but that begs the question: How is it so apparent if it’s not visible?
The answer to this question seems simple, but its complexity is as cleverly hidden behind its simplicity as the impact of mental illness is hidden behind a well-timed smile. In a speech by Kevin Breel, which I will link to below, he says, “The stigma in our society is very real. And if you think that it isn’t, ask yourself this: Would you rather make your next Facebook status say that you’re having a hard time getting out of bed because you hurt your back, or that you’re having a tough time getting out of bed every morning because you’re depressed? That's the stigma.” When put that way, the answer to the above question—How is it so apparent if it’s not visible?—begins to become clear. The term stigma became associated with mental health because those dealing with it felt as if they would be judged and condemned based on their illness, and in the beginning this was often a justified fear; before modern psychology, it wasn’t uncommon for superstitious ideals to be associated with mental health, such as witchcraft and demonic possession. Then, in the early days of modern psychology, when the understanding of mental illness was in its infancy, it then became commonplace to isolate the person from the rest of the world; they would basically be imprisoned and treated by archaic sciences in order to “fix” them. Given those two options, it’s understandable to hide any signs of mental health issues.
However, much has changed since those times. Medical advancements have made it possible to map the brain and prove, beyond a doubt, that mental illness exists. So why is the stigma still present if society as a whole now understands that it’s real? As Kevin Breel hinted at, a large part of that is because of us, the people who deal with mental health issues. That’s not to say that the responsibility of the scenario rests firmly on the shoulders of the sufferers, but rather that it began with the “outside” society, and was passed down through the generations, and although it’s no longer needed, it’s still engrained in the mentally ill community. The next time you look in the mirror, look at your eyes; you’ll notice that there is a fleshy pink area on the inside corners. This is known as the Plica Semilunaris, or the third eyelid. Obviously, in humans, we’ve evolved past the point of needing it, and though it’s receded quite a bit throughout history, it’s still there; the same holds true for body hair. The stigma surrounding mental illness, in many ways, is like those parts of the human body that have become useless as evolution has moved on, and though it’s diminished greatly, it’s remnants are still there.
The stigma of mental illness is very real, and there are certainly those in society that would perpetuate it, just as there are those that would perpetuate racism or sexism. However, there are far more people who would not. The issue lies in the fact that mental illness does not rely on rational thought; it is purely emotional, and oftentimes that emotion can manifest itself as fear. Irrational fears are not new, and they’re not restricted to only the mental health community; there are many who have a fear of spiders, or cockroaches, or flying. These fears are not the fault of the person, and are often simply remnants of instincts that evolution has rendered useless, but which humanity hasn't completely erased. Just like that, the stigma around mental illness is more often than not simply the person’s mind magnifying the fear that those before us endured. Again, that is not to say that the “normal” people in society cannot exacerbate the issue, but it is important to remember that, just like our first kiss, the butterflies do not always speak the truth.
Just as with most modern stigmas, it is important for those on the “inside” to realize that emotion is not rational; simply because one may fear persecution does not mean that it’s as severe as it seems. Society still has a long way to go in the fight against the mental health stigma; those archaic beliefs still run rampant, but change does not come all at once. Change must be built upon, just as a house is built upon its foundation. Society has laid the groundwork, and now it’s time for the next step. Those of us in the mental health community, though, must be willing to recognize the role that we play in this, and must be willing to give credence to that fact. History has taught us with past stigmas that change will not come until we, as individuals both inside and outside the community, can do that. Stand up to stigma, and don't be ashamed of yourself or your feelings.
A Note About the Author
I have dealt with mental health issues for most of my life, and for many years I felt like it was getting worse over time. Due to the work I do, I often seem to defy the stigma, but this is not the case. In my personal life, I feel the effects just as keenly as others, and the realization of my own personal responsibility came when I was confronted with the reality that I was actually afraid to talk to even my wife about certain symptoms. I realized that the stigma can never be fully eradicated unless I am willing to open up and talk about it, and by not speaking up I was just as guilty of perpetuating it as anyone else.