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The Dangers of Differences:A Practical Look at Social Stigma and Mental Health

by Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

Whether it’s in passing or via social media, we’re all familiar with stigma. It’s a word we often hear being thrown around in a number of social injustices,a favored hashtag by passionate social media users on a mission, and a wall for those of us who are shuffled into a social minority. But what is stigma? What does it mean as a word and more importantly, what does it mean for us as people? Today we’ll explore not just stigma as a word but also stigma as it gradually continues to shape the landscape of our society and lessen our quality of life.

The dictionary defines stigma as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. In basic terms though, stigma can be easily defined as the shame society can make us feel for being different. Despite the huge efforts we as people make to push being unique as being okay, the reality is that even those efforts often end up somehow plugging how great it is to be accepted by fitting in. 

As an example, a while ago I can recall seeing a commercial for E-bay that was supposedly about being unique but the whole time that the music was singing about standing out, the commercial displayed people copying other people’s fashion and in fact making efforts to fit in. I can also recall a makeup commercial for foundation that talks about standing out and loving yourself but all the while the model is using the makeup to cover up some discolorations that make her unique and no less beautiful than another person.  This isn’t just a coincidence. It’s very often a mixed message that dominates a lot of the standards of our modern society. We live in a world that constantly pushes being a sheep and not a Shepard.

Psychologically this is the sort of atmosphere where stigma breeds. Having these kinds of ideals constantly beat into our minds creates a fear of things different more than an acceptance of it. Questioning someone who dresses,looks,or thinks differently becomes a normal behavior. This fear isn’t something we always consciously note but rather a learned behavior. You may not realize it, but things like popular media,peer pressure, and even constructs like schools and churches are constantly grooming us to associate acceptance with a sameness. They train us to see the ultimate positive as being other people aligning themselves with a majority vote or fitting themselves into a mold. That means when we run into a person who behaves,believes, or looks outside of our definitions of normal and accepted, it is almost a reflex to see that as negative and something to be feared and ridiculed. We have unwittingly built a society that associates acceptance with compliance and that can be a hard thing to overcome.

So what is stigma? The answer is that stigma is a lot of things. Stigma is a cluster of negative ideals that we’ve developed over time as people. Stigma is fear,prejudice , and ignorance that not only festers within its host  but grows if nurtured with the right fertilizer from the world around us. Stigma is an invisible target that our society puts on the backs of those who either can’t or refuse to fit into a mold or follow a perceived routine of behaviors. But more than anything,stigma is the embodiment of what happens when people don’t make an effort to love and understand the people around them.

The fact of the matter is that we’re all unique people. One of the things that makes human beings fit together is that they’re all different and just like a jigsaw puzzle we can all fit together and play a role in society despite one person being a corner piece and one being one of the more complex middle pieces. Differences need to be embraced,not shamed. Stigma is something that won’t end overnight but the more we make an effort to see how awesome it is to be a different shape,size,gender,color,or walk of life, the less stigma will continue spreading through and hanging over our society.

When we talk about stigma,especially more recently, it is often associated with an issue in the mental health community. The hashtag of #endthestigma quickly took on  a huge following on Twitter and similar movements are present on other social networks. While stigma is not something unique to just mental health, it has always been a prominent issue in that circle of discussion. The reason for this is simple. Mental health issues are shamed in our society.

In situations where we should be embracing and helping as we would with pretty much any other condition, the common reflex is to look down on someone dealing with a mental health condition. We only see the negatives and treat that person as if it is their fault they’re sick. The reality is that most people are ambushed by their situations. No one asks for a mental health condition or does something to overtly cause it. In addition to making mental health sufferers feel guilt for their situation it is also common to make them feel as if they are flawed or less of a person. Having a mental health issue doesn’t change that you are biologically human. It just gives you different circumstances.

As an actual person who has suffered with mental health problems most of my life, I can attest that whether intentional or unintentional, people often treat me differently. They tiptoe around me because they somehow perceive that me having anxiety or depression requires them to walk on eggshells around me. I have even had to hear some of my relatives get bitter about feeling this way when it is basically a self-imposed reaction I never asked for. These types of behaviors are ones that help build the prevalent stigma our society puts onto mental health sufferers.

But far worse than the poor treatment of those who are open about having a mental health issue is the kind of widespread damage stigma creates. For every person coming forward, there are hundreds too afraid to get the help they need because of the stigma on having a mental health issue. Hundreds and possibly thousands leave life prematurely or unhappily every day because they don’t feel they will be loved or accepted if they open up about their conditions. Disabilities are often seen as something we need to be ashamed of and feeling that over time causes significant psychological damage to a person who is just trying to do their best with the hand they’ve been dealt.

More than anything, the key factor to ending mental health stigma needs to be that people change their perspective. Disabilities don’t make the person less of a person. They just make them a different person. They don’t make a person weak and deficient. They make them wise and strong. Disabilities can cause symptoms that interrupt a person’s life but they can also lend to experiences that change lives. Most importantly, disabilities don’t define the person. They are one part of the person and if you never make an effort to discover who that person truly is, you will never truly know the beauty of that person’s unique life experiences. If you never take the time to see the person and not a diagnosis, you do an injustice to them but also to yourself. The sooner we as a society can gain a new perspective on the topic of disability, the sooner we can begin to see that there are living,breathing people with feelings,thoughts, and ambitions as valid as everyone else’s behind that diagnosis and work toward crushing mental health stigma for good.

Stigma is no simple issue. It’s a preconception and also a misconception that gets imbued into people over time. It’s the same sense as looking at life with the blinders they put on horses. Sometimes you may be walking around without knowing you even have the concept of stigma affecting you. Ending the hold stigma has on you has to be conscious effort to change, because in essence it’s a learned behavior. This means that what really works toward ending stigma is understanding. Instead of automatically making an assumption based on popular opinion, make an effort to learn and understand. If you think something about a person based on a preconception or misconception, you are mentally preparing yourself to reject or ignore the truth about them.

Think about the experience of interacting with the person as if you were going to a restaurant. You might go to an Olive Garden for instance and order something that uses something you know like ravioli but there are so many ways to prepare ravioli that you can’t fully rely on the preconception you enjoy ravioli. You have to eat the ravioli dish you ordered with some open-mindedness that each dish made with it will be different but that doesn’t make it bad. Otherwise, you’d never try new food.

In the same sense we need to think of other people as trying a new dish. Regardless of how the person looks or what you think you know about them, engage them as if they are a completely new experience. Don’t be the person who knows. Be the person who learns and listens. Don’t assume. If you are feeling or behaving a certain way because of something based on a factor you walked in with, it could very well be wrong. Never confuse fact and assumption, because they’re two very different mindsets. If you are finding error or displeasure but you can’t base it off of something solid you’ve learned from actually engaging with the person then it could be wrong. Remember that all people matter and that’s not something conditional to their race,build,gender, or health. Having a medical condition or fitting a certain demographic doesn’t add or deplete from a person’s worth.

Understand that stigma is something we all carry in one sense or another but don’t be afraid of it. Acknowledge it and make an active effort to not give it life. Just because a person or thing is new or different doesn’t mean its bad. Don’t be afraid to open your arms to the things you encounter in life because that means you’re afraid of growth and change too. Make that effort to not be blinded by stigma and you might find that you’re really seeing the world fully for the first time.

Conclusion

Being able to find common ground as human beings is in part a result of embracing our differences and trying to understand each other. Eliminating stigma means realizing that no matter how different a person is from you, we can all relate to feeling different at some point in our lives and we can all understand what it’s like to be an odd person out at least once in our lives. Don’t pass that feeling on. Use it to connect and grow to realize that feeling different isn’t really all that different. When we choose to love a person for everything they are as opposed to calling them out for who we feel they aren’t, we become a force for change and the beginning of the end of social stigma.


Thanks for reading this issue of Thoughts of an Aspie!

Do you agree or disagree with me? What are you doing to help end social stigma? Have you ever felt out of place or different before? Please feel free to let me know by leaving a comment or using the contact form on my site here to reach out to me. Also if you like my work  and would like to see more of it or support it I’d love it if you’d check out my Patreon page or follow me on Facebook or Twitter via @themeinav! Also, Big thanks to Pixabay for the additional images used in today’s article.


 

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