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Challenge the Language of Health Stigma

· Health Stigma

Ninety-five percent of the world's population has health problems according to a study published in The Lancet in 2013. That's a lot of suffering. Yet, there isn't a day that goes by where you don't read or hear about someone being referred to as a health condition with little or no regard for their suffering or for those suffering from the same condition. I am not talking about the experience of having a health condition. I am talking about the way that we talk about and analyze people as though they are a health condition or that their health condition is actually a part of their identity, whether or not they even have that health condition. It has become a cultural phenomena.

When we think about or talk about someone, we typically use words like they are: adventurous, independent, optimistic, courageous, loyal, reliable, caring, thoughtful, or a social butterfly. These traits probably resonate with the person that you are referring to because these are expressed consistently throughout a lifetime. We might also refer to their roles in life as a sibling, parent or grandparent, an occupation or contribution in life, or even their hobbies and interests. A health condition, on the other hand, is not an inherent trait. It is not an expression of our essence and who we are as human beings. To refer to someone as a health condition makes it impossible for that person to ever be treated in a way that reflects their true nature. Over time, if someone is defined by their health condition or features and symptoms of their health condition, they become dehumanized.

We use the language of health stigma when we use labels, symptoms, disorders, or health conditions as a way to define a human being, or to mock, belittle, undermine, or make meaning of behavior that we don't fully understand or that makes us uncomfortable. We make judgments and assumptions often without basis. To reduce anyone to a feature or a symptom of a health condition is shaming and stigmatizing. The only person qualified to tell any of us whether or not we have a health condition is our own medical or health practitioner. For anyone else to refer to someone as a health condition is not only inappropriate, it perpetuates this collective disregard we have toward those who are suffering. To engage in name calling or discrediting someone based on a health condition displays a lack of humanity that has become the norm of late. To refer to someone as a health condition based on some physical or observable symptom often leads to incorrect and false assumptions and accusations about their health. Symptoms are not exclusive to one type of health condition. If someone stumbles and falls, for example, is it because of a neurological disorder? Mental health issue? Alcohol or drugs? Elderly? Foot disorder? Muscle weakness in the legs? Dizziness? Diabetes? Dehydration? Low blood pressure? Vision or hearing problems? Balance issue? Parkinson’s disease? Chronic pain? You don't know. And, does it even matter if you are the one who is witnessing someone stumble and fall? We really don't have to understand someone in order to show compassion.

Humanity by definition means being humane, kind, and compassionate. A compassionate response is the first response we have when we observe and know that someone is suffering. If someone has a health condition, there is suffering. Compassion is a felt experience in response to suffering and it is lost in translation through the way that we judge, shame, and stigmatize people based on their health. Those suffering from health conditions often struggle to feel like they are still a part of humanity where they can be accepted and connected in both health and un-wellness. We are doing a great disservice to others when we define them by a health condition rather than by their humanity. It makes living, healing, and overcoming very difficult. Health stigma affects everyone regardless of health condition – whether it is physical, mental, or emotional. We all experience unwellness at some point in our lives and we all know someone with health issues. Suffering is something we all share as human beings, and the only humane response to suffering is a compassionate one.

Copyright © 2017. Sylvia Carlson. All Rights Reserved.

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