The Cycle of Stigma (full text)

Understanding the Cycle of Stigma

In the Hero’s Journey, we learned that the Hero goes away to a Strange place (Magical World) and discovers a magic talent or formula that helps him/her overcome a serious and debilitating flaw. Then we learned that the Hero must return (cf. Prodigal’s Return) and share that discovery with the former community in the Ordinary world. We saw how this Archetypal Journey represents our experiences with Mental Illness/Substance Use and our successful Recovery and consequent Health and Wellbeing.

So we are all Heroes in our own Journey of Recovery; Superheroes in our own Soul Journey of Spiritual and Physical Wellbeing.

Understanding Stigma

In order to discover the Special Knowledge that will lead us back to Stability, we must first learn to understand stigma. First we should ask, “exactly what is stigma?”. This is a good question and another one just like it might be, “just what exactly is ‘Mental Health’ ?”.

The World Health Organization defines Mental Health as: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his/her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his/her community”.

Mental Health is invisible except for the various manifestations of behavior, blood work, and brain scans. If you notice, a lot about the WHO’s definition of MH is not particularly about thoughts, which constitute much of what we believe to be ‘mental’.

Indeed,  MH goes far beyond just thoughts. Though the roots may begin with thoughts, thoughts affect feelings; feelings affect behavior; and behaviors affect the outcome of your productivity and stability; which circles back to affect your thoughts. Unattended, they each can lead to disruptions in the others; it can play out positively or adversely.

There are various definitions of stigma, but one definition is:

“a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society has about someone or something”.

Stigma is not restricted to Mental Illness but is directed toward physical illness or disabilities and also the object of disparaging opinions.

Stigma generally includes:

  • Stereotypes: unfair beliefs that all people with particular characteristics are the same
  • Prejudice: unfair feelings or dislike for persons or groups because of sex, religion, race, creed or national origin, etc.
  • Discrimination: the practice of unfairness by treating persons or groups differently from other persons or groups.

So; stereotypes are related to thoughts, prejudice comes from feelings, and discrimination relates to behavior. All of these adversely affect our MH. Stigma affects all of these; our thoughts, our feelings, and our behavior.

A survey of people living with mental health issues, conducted in 2007, showed that only 25% believe that people are sympathetic and caring toward people with mental illness. This means that the 75% majority will avoid disclosing their needs at all cost, a severe impediment to receiving treatment and support.

“The threat of stigma is so powerful as to prevent the vast majority from obtaining even an initial interview with a professional. Stigma is personal.”

Devastating Results

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that stigma leads to:

  • Inadequate insurance coverage for mental health services
  • Fear, mistrust, and violence against people living with mental illness and their families
  • Family and friends turning their backs on people with mental illness
  • Prejudice and discrimination

With three-quarters of our population with diagnosable MH issues not seeking treatment, our society is suffering from stigma and unable to live up to our full potential. Stigma is often worse than the MH/SU challenges themselves. It is both a subtle influence and broadly felt experience. In my experience:

  • I was ashamed
  • I didn’t want other people to find out, and
  • I felt marginalized, isolated, and exploited.

But there is Hope: by understanding more about stigma, we can strive to overcome its effects.

The Cycle of Stigma

Reference to stigma involves not just the formal definition: an attribute of shame. It refers to an entire cyclical system that features shame as the initiator.

  1. Stigma begins with shame
  2. Shame leads to silence
  3. Silence leads to adverse behavior (isolation, social injustice (isolation, marginalization, exploitation), self destructive behavior, sabotage, and suicide. (cf. Johari)
  4. The Feedback loops in the System repeat and reinforce the Cycle.

Aspects (or all) of this cycle are present both in the lives of MH Individuals and someone who loves or cares for another who lives with MH challenges.

Our Mission

Our mission is turn this knowledge of the effects of stigma into a source of strength, recovery and renewal. This will enable the following dramatic transformations in our lives:

  1. We should begin to feel less shame and anxiety about our own MH. We should begin to see that this is a part of our Soul Journey that makes us so special…even attractive.
  2. We become more comfortable talking to people about our past and about our successful recovery
  3. Other people become inspired to openly talk about their own MH challenges.
  4. It feels great! We begin sharing with each other what we have learned and experienced and the burden of shame begins to slide off our shoulders.
  5. We contribute to a culture of Transforming Stigma into Strength, contributing to the Peer Movement, and bringing the Magic of our Soul Journey back into the Ordinary World where it can contribute to helping others in their Journey.