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Reducing Stigma

According to the dictionary, stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”  When we think of the word stigma, it creates an image that most of us can relate to.  Whether it’s our own beliefs or ones that have been shared with us, stigma questions our abilities, challenges us to feel comfortable with the status quo, and often prevents us from reaching out for the support that we need.  Most of us feel stigmatized at some point in our lives, such as not feeling smart enough taking an exam, or feeling unqualified for a job interview.  And while we felt this way momentarily, we were likely able to recognize these feelings, and after a short period of time move on from them.

People who experience mental health or substance use symptoms more commonly experience stigma.  Left untreated, stigma can lead towards worsening self-esteem, self-worth, and self-compassion.  It can trigger or exacerbate depression, anxiety, trauma, or substance misuse.  It can also lead to discrimination, and limit access to care and treatment, housing, employment, education, and job training.

There are two common forms of stigma:  externalized and internalized.  An example of externalized stigma includes overhearing conversations about how someone feels about another person or group of people.  On the other hand, internalized stigma focuses on the perceptions and ideas that we internally hold about ourselves.  Internalized stigma is often more significant, as it affects our self-esteem, self-worth, and self-compassion. 

Tips for managing internalized stigma:

Creating self-awareness – be cognizant that you are engaging in this type of behavior.  Know that it’s a choice whether you want to accept the internalized stigma or challenge and ignore it.

Modeling of language – what we say matters!  Use “person-centered” language, and words that emphasize the symptoms.  For example, saying “I’m a person experiencing depression,” as opposed to “I’m depressed.”

Instilling empowerment – speaking up for yourself and what your wants, needs and preferences are.

Promoting self-compassion – being kind to yourself.  This may include taking a lunch break, getting a massage, or not listening to your inner critic.

Finding exceptions –it’s easy for us to use the words “always” and “never” when we describe our behaviors, but is that really true?  Not many things are life are absolute—there’s usually some fluctuation.

Joining a cause—help connect with others who share your passion for education, awareness, and change.  There are a variety of different organizations, such as NAMI, DBSA, SAMHSA, and the National Council which all help generate awareness of mental health needs and work to reduce stigma.