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Shame and Stigma Is a Needless Suffering

When you hear the word 'stigma', what is the first thing that comes to mind? Physical health? Mental health? A specific disorder or disease? Your own health condition? It may depend on your beliefs and experiences and/or those of your family and friends. It may depend on your gender, age, religion, creed, race, ethnic origin, place of origin, or socio-economic status. Despite this, health stigma is a universal and human phenomenon. It affects everyone of us across the globe whether you have a health condition or not.

Health stigma is judging someone and making assumptions about them based solely on their health condition or a symptom of that condition despite the fact that a human being is not a health condition. When we single out a human being for no other reason than their health condition, and thus treat them in a way that shames, demoralizes, or dehumanizes them, we are behaving as though that person is not worthy of care, respect, or compassion. More than not, our judgments and assumptions are incorrect and false.

Health stigma can affect anyone with a health condition, whether it is widely publicized such as mental illness, PTSD, obesity, tuberculosis, colon or lung cancer, psoriasis, movement disorder, HIV/AIDS, epilepsy, polio, leprosy, or whether it is a condition that you have learned about, feared, and thus came to believe would render you or someone else as being less than or inferior to other human beings. Stigma in Greek and Latin is a mark or brand. Stigma marks a person as being less than or inferior. Stigma devalues a human being. It is intended to.

When I was a child growing up in the 1970's, I learned that there were people from less affluent countries in Asia and Africa who were shamed and stigmatized for having leprosy. This was my first encounter with health stigma. I would see images of people on television who had terribly disfigured hands and feet, skin sores, and blindness because there was no effective leprosy treatment at the time. I learned that many lived in leprosy colonies segregated away from their communities. An infectious disease and the subsequent fears that it created in their community caused them to become isolated, homeless, and community-less social outcasts. They were deemed non-persons -- pariahs to be feared, disliked, and avoided. This was a lifelong affliction and a lifelong suffering.

Today, leprosy is curable if the individual has access to health care services and treatment. Today, if that individual receives treatment, the disease itself is no longer transmittable. Without treatment, leprosy can cause severe and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs, and eyes. Despite the myths and fears, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the risk of getting leprosy is actually very low and is not transmitted through everyday human contact by hugging or shaking hands. In fact, it is not highly contagious. However, the associated shame and health stigma of leprosy is still ongoing despite all of the medical advancements.

When an effective and timely treatment is made available to those who are suffering from a health condition, the long-term effects can be mitigated early on. Thus, in order to prevent further suffering, and/or subsequent disabling, disfiguring, or demoralizing social and economic effects as a result of health stigma, effective and timely treatment is crucial. Yet, in India, even with available leprosy treatment, the effects of stigma often prevent individuals from seeking treatment. And, even when cured of leprosy, the effects of stigma can prevent an individual from ever returning to their home or work, or ever being able to live a life of dignity.

In more affluent countries like Canada and the United States, health stigma is more often associated with mental health or trauma-related conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress). In response to PTSD stigma, individuals and groups have collectively come together to propose a change in the title from PTSD (D for disorder) to PTSI (I for injury). They believe that this would help combat stigma because the term 'disorder' has implications that perpetuate bias and incorrect public perceptions, such as one is weak if you have a disorder. Whether or not we change the title from PTSD to PTSI, there is stigma in having any health condition that is labelled a disorder; there is stigma in having a health condition as a result of combat; there is stigma in having a health condition as a result of trauma caused by suffering at the hands of another; and, there is stigma in having a health condition as a result of experiencing and witnessing traumatic events. Much like with many other health conditions, individuals with PTSD do not seek out treatment because of the associated shame and stigma. Much like with many other health conditions, the longer you suffer without proper care and treatment, the harder it is to heal and feel better.

Shame and stigma is a needless suffering in this world. It is avoidable. Even in the 21st century, with all that we know and understand, there is still so much suffering that comes from acquiring or developing a health condition. Some of that suffering is unavoidable, but it can always be eased by kindness and compassion from other human beings. In this day and age, causing intentional and undue suffering to another human being simply because of a health condition is a clear indication of how far we have to go as a collective to restore our humanity.

What we do to people with health conditions is often far worse than the symptoms that one endures as a result of that health condition. A belief is not a fact. Health stigma is justified by false beliefs. Our beliefs are largely based on our experiences and what we learned as children growing up. Our beliefs can change if we challenge them. If we are causing harm to others because of our beliefs, it seems a good place to begin.

Copyright © 2018. Sylvia Carlson. All Rights Reserved.
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