To be honest, I never really realized how much stigma affects so many of us until I became chronically ill.
“Who cares what others think? Just let it roll off.”
That was pretty much my attitude about it…this despite the fact that my kids struggled with mental illness and I devoted years advocating for them and that I’ve faced prejudices about being a suicide attempt survivor and that I used to self-harm.
“Sure, it’s annoying and sometimes hurts your feelings…but it’s not like it’s physically harmful.”
I’ve learned better. Here are some ways stigmas can actually cause both physical and mental harm.
1. INADEQUATE TREATMENT.
Where to start with this one? Stigmas can lead to a person not receiving proper care…both from medical professionals who have absorbed and harbor the ideas that pain patients are drug seekers, that mental illnesses are not “real” illnesses, and that some disorders don’t “actually exist,” and from ourselves internalizing these ideas and being afraid to seek care for fear of being stigmatized or believing what we’ve heard–it’s a weakness/character flaw, we can push through it/think ourselves happy/don’t have a real problem/are imagining it/others have it worse.
Yes, this is so pervasive that this is a reality. And whether it’s depression or another chronic illness, we can literally risk our health and our lives by not seeking treatment.
2. LACK OF REAL AWARENESS.
Number one leads into this so well. What does awareness matter? What does lack of awareness affect?
When the facts of a disorder/illness are distorted or unknown, we face judgment from the uneducated, misinformed, and even ourselves, for one.
Lack of awareness affects research funding…which affects available treatment or whether doctors even know how to treat our illness (not every doctor is an expert; far from it). Many medical students do not choose a specialty that isn’t well funded research-wise. Before you judge them harshly for that, think of how hard it would be to spend years of your life not being able to actually help do more than a drop in the bucket for your patients–not to be able to offer hope for a cure or even a treatment that will make a noticeable difference. I’ve been lucky enough to have some doctors this truly bothers and who have confided that it IS discouraging for them as well as for their patients.
3. DISCRIMINATION and RECRIMINATION.
This is alive and well; although we as a society have become more accepting and accessible, we also have a lot of misconceptions about what is a “real” disability…and many have no qualms about holding forth on it to those that don’t fit their ideas of it.
A friend of mine came under attack on her chronic migraine blog recently from a gentleman (I use the term loosely) who had these choice comments:
“He said on an image that said ‘Pain doesn’t go away, you just make room for it’…Get off your phat ass an live with it, just like everyone else!’
On an article about depression… ‘There you have it, it’s psychological. Now go see a good therapist and get back to work, you shirking POS.’
On an image that said ‘My pain is invisible but I am not’: cry me an ‘effin river you whiney douchebag.’
On image that said ‘stuck between Hell and Hope.’ : ‘You want to know what hell is? It’s listening to you vapid brainless bloggers run on about your “pain” and every little ache you have. Don’t eat like a pig, eat healthily, do some freakin’ exercises, and then get a job and pay back this country for all the down-time you’ve gotten and sucking off the workmen’s compensation, SSI and SSDI funding. Parasites!’
Many of us with chronic health issues have had these sort of comments fired at us, even from some family and “friends.” Some are more subtle, some are outright derision. On top of health issues and the guilt we already feel, these kind of remarks can be horribly painful…and the fact is, many people truly believe them, especially when one’s disease is “invisible.”
These are kinds of people who vote to cut welfare and disability assistance or make them harder to qualify for on the rationalization that anyone who doesn’t “look sick” is a scammer or leaching tax dollars from those who “really need it” and are “legitimately disabled.” The sad part is that some of them are disabled themselves and judge others on whether they’re “as badly off.”
4. INTERNALIZING STIGMA.
This is a big one and ties into lack of awareness and not practicing self care.
It exacerbates the depression, anxiety, and low self esteem that often goes hand in hand with chronic illnesses, as well as perpetuating the feeling that we shouldn’t talk about it.
If your chronic illness(es) are mental health disorder(s), this is really pervasive and can be extremely detrimental.
What can we do about stigmas?
Sometimes nothing…some people will feel this way no matter how much we attempt to educate and sway them, and that’s the hard part that can discourage us.
Sometimes it’s just more self productive to walk away from those toxic people who damage us and try to make us feel at fault.
But awareness is the single most effective way to combat stigma, and those who the message we spread reaches are the the ones who matter most. Don’t waste time on toxic people…but don’t let them stop you from advocating for yourself.
And please, don’t let them stop you from taking care of you.