Stigma is defined in the following ways by various organisations who are working to combat it in particular areas.
‘Time to Change’ define it as:
“… a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labelled by their illness they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes create prejudice which leads to negative actions and discrimination.”
‘Who Can You Tell’ suggest that:
“Stigma is a degrading and debasing attitude of the society that discredits a person or a group because of an attribute.”
As a Senior Addiction Worker for Simpson House in Edinburgh, my role includes facilitating mutual aid groups and mentoring volunteers in recovery.
The people who access our services have had a variety of struggles in their lives including fighting to overcome addictive behaviours, struggles with mental health and at times feeling suicidal. Living with these struggles can leave people with very little confidence and high levels of guilt, shame and self-loathing.
This is exacerbated when people have encountered a lack of understanding from others and have been misunderstood and labelled, which only further increases these negative feelings.
For example people have experienced being called things such as; Alky, Junkie, Tranny, and Loony. These labels are not helpful for an individual’s self-esteem.
Part of the work we do in the groups is to help build people’s self-esteem and to not feel labelled by society. While we cannot be responsible for what people say to us we can be responsible for the way we respond to it. We want to encourage people to look at the whole person and not to label as labelling defines a person by one part of their life or history.
Sometimes when people have been struggling with depression they have been told things like:
“What have you got to be depressed about? Just pull yourself together, you don’t look depressed.”
After feeling suicidal, and making an attempt at ending their lives, people have been told:
“You’re a time-wasting attention seeker it’s very selfish to feel suicidal. How could you do this to your children?”
We have discussed the impact of stigma and how we might respond to it across our different groups. It is helpful for people to remember that an illness, addiction or feeling a certain way does not define them as a person. It is also helpful to understand that people may make unhelpful comments due to their own fears because they don’t understand.
It can be an amazing release for people to tell others how they feel, this can be liberating, lessen shame and it helps the other person to understand.
Part of our Choose Life group is about increasing awareness and share helpful pages on social media. People also acknowledge that due to their own experiences, they have a greater understanding and compassion towards others; the more people are able to talk about it, the less prejudice and fear there is.
What can help keep people strong in the face of stigma and discrimination is being able to maintain a good attitude and unconditional self-acceptance. This is further strengthened by staying in touch with those who support you; it’s like a wall of protection.
Another part is accepting that humans will often find a reason to hate due to difference and we can’t change the world. What we can do is choose not to take it on board, educate where we can, and change the language; language is very powerful. When we change the words we can change the culture of prejudice.
It is truly amazing to see the way social barriers come tumbling down in group work. Although people may come from different backgrounds they can all relate to the shared emotional experiences we have as human beings, this is one of the things I like about facilitating groups; it is one of the few places in our society where people support each other without prejudice or judgement.
While certain stigmas are lessening due to increased awareness I do realise there is a long way to go but if we can continue the work we are doing we will help make a change in society.
These are his personal views and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Simpson House, CrossReach.