I find myself in a slight state of surprise as a result of considering this question. And indeed it is entirely possible that you the reader – should you read this post all the way through – might just also be surprised by my answer to it.
There is of course my initial reaction to the question. Which is that although this is a ‘Mental Illness Awareness’ challenge, the question itself is fairly open. “Have you ever experienced stigma?”
The open nature of the question does therefore invite a wider possible range of answers. It can also include stigma not relating to [or specific to] mental illness.
Stigma that I experienced but not specific to my Mental Illness…
And as a man who is extremely overweight I have to tell you that I have personally been the target of a heck of a lot of stigma. Of hurtful name-calling, and unhealthy and hurtful labeling or attitudes purely as a result of my weight.
I have certainly experienced names such as; ‘Fatso’, ‘Fat Freak’, ‘Lard-*rse’, ‘Elephant Man’, ‘Blubber guts’, ‘Wide load’ or ‘Hippo’ being targeted my way. Along with countless situations where the apparent name-calling and/or negative comments have been too quiet or inaudible (as a result of my being too far away) but where the resultant pointing and laughing has usually given away their presence.
And whilst this is a Mental Illness Awareness challenge I think the inclusion of that – weight-specific – stigma is important as it does open up a very real consideration.
People often respond to that which they see. And they do so according to the experiences or attitudes that they have. And what they see does not have to be long-term, frequent or continuous. For example, we know that with children a single event – such as a child inadvertently wetting his or herself – can cause a name (and a certain amount of resultant stigma) to be attached to that child for a very long time to come.
In terms of what people see in me, my mental health is not always either apparent or the main focus of someone’s attention. In respect of my mental illnesses I present (as I have written before in other questions within this challenge and in other blog posts) – and generally speaking – as what they call ‘high functioning’.
Other than at times when my mental health deteriorates to such a degree where I am unable to cope with it, too all intents and purposes I generally do not come across as suffering from a mental illness or poor mental health. But I promise you that hiding my obvious extreme obesity is much harder. And so a great deal of stigma that I have experienced has been in respect of that.
Stigma that I experienced which is specific to my Mental Illness…
In the spirit of objectivity, I do feel that it is a fair and accurate statement to say that the fact that some people often immediately focus on my weight has to some degree or another reduces the level of stigma which I could (possibly) have experienced as a result of my mental illnesses.
Likewise, as I said above, the fact that I generally present as what they term ‘high-functioning’ means that my mental illness is often concealed. And then of course there is the isolation factor.
Although I am going out a lot more than I have before I do still spend a great deal of time alone and thus the potential for me to experience stigma is greatly reduce.
That having been said, I have an occasionally still do experience some stigma thrown at me by others, but not to any great or noteworthy level.
And it is here that I want to offer another consideration in respect of stigma and indeed to come to that ‘slight state of surprise’ that I mentioned at the start of this post.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘stigma’ as follows…
A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person:
And in fact, if you look at the origin and history of the word, it comes from the word ‘stigme’ (c.1400) and was a “mark made on skin by burning with a hot iron.” (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary) It then also included tattooing or puncturing or cutting the skin.
For me, this definition and history invokes (given it’s social context) a very real picture of something which was inflicted on someone in order to set them apart or to identify them in a way which brings them some form of lack of worth, humiliation or disgrace.
Indeed my understanding is that historically it (burning a brand or placing a scar or tattoo on the the skin) in this context was done to; slaves, criminals or traitors in order to identify them as either a less worthy person, property of another, or a morally polluted person and someone who should therefore be avoided or shunned.
It often associates that person (or group of people) with unhelpful and unhealthy and often unjust stereotypes to which prejudices all to often result in negative attitudes, actions and discrimination.
That picture of stigma historically being something (a mark) which was inflicted on someone in order to set them apart or to identify them in a way which brings them some form of lack of worth, humiliation or disgrace. Sent my mind off in an interesting direction…
I have, as some readers will know, struggled for some time with self-harming.
Thankfully – although I do still get the urges – I haven’t actually self-harmed for some time now. But given the fact that I did (and still get the urges to) it interests me that I never (until now) considered the resultant marks or scars in respect of the subject of self-applied stigma.
The fact that stigma still exists in respect of mental illness and poor mental health is without argument. You only have to search the internet or go on social media sites to see evidence of campaigns aimed at reducing and hopefully removing this from society.
As we have already seen, stigma can be defined as; ‘a mark, or label, or the targeting of attitudes which identify a person (or group of people) with disgrace and a lack of worth.‘ It ‘often associates that person (or group of people) with unhelpful and unhealthy and often unjust stereotypes to which prejudices all to often result in negative attitudes, actions and discrimination.‘
It is clearly wrong when it is done to us by others and we are clearly right to fight against it. But the question that has come to my mind is do we not sometimes apply stigma to ourselves?
Let’s look again at that definition – stigma can be defined as ‘a mark, or label, or the targeting of attitudes which identify a person (or group of people) with disgrace and a lack of worth.‘ It ‘often associates that person (or group of people) with unhelpful and unhealthy and often unjust stereotypes to which prejudices all to often result in negative attitudes, actions and discrimination.‘
Do we not sometimes do that to ourselves? Are we not also sometimes guilty of self-applied stigma? Of targeting at ourselves those attitudes or labels and identify ourselves with a lack of worth or with disgrace?
Indeed as a someone who struggles with self-harming I have to ask myself “is this sometimes part of what I myself am doing when I self-harm?”
And that is a very tough question, isn’t it? But for those who do not self-harm the question (and consideration) is, I think, still valid. And as tough a question as it is, it is I think, worth asking.