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The imprint of Stigma

Monday, October 10th was World Mental Health Day. The stigma around mental health, its causes and treatments, and how the stigma itself amplifies loneliness, exclusion and shame that goes hand in hand with Mental Health issues, has contributed to the article below; however, in my own life, stigma has expanded beyond the boundaries of mental health, and prevents our global interdependence and collective need for healing... Read on...

I don’t know about you, but stigma is a word that feels sticky to me. It conjures up a colour like resin, a texture like tar.

And when I think about it, it makes sense; what is stigma, but a soup of murky beliefs made by not one, but a whole culture’s judgements based on limited knowledge and a belief system dominated by fear.

The word comes from the Latin stigmata, meaning "mark or brand," and further back, the Greek stizein, meaning "to tattoo."

Rather than a physical or literal branding, the ideation of a stigma seems to begin with negative judgement by a person about someone else, that then broadens to include a whole group of people sharing this belief about another group of people. Eventually this shared belief normalises into a prescribed idea that implies a binary code: right or wrong, good or bad, normal or weird, dangerous or safe. And Bingo - that someone, those someones - are stigmatised.

Most often, the choices, lifestyles and physical appearance of those being stigmatised is not actually a choice. It might be a handicap or disease, sexual or gender identity, or simply the colour of your skin. Then, there are the things we cannot see: invisible disabilities like mental health issues, auto-immune disease, chronic pain, or simply how someone feels about themself. Visible and invisible, the stigma that arises causes shame, embarrassment and a sense of separateness that can be excruciating. And the source of the stigma? 100% of the time it is fear. Fear that shows up to protect one's sense of small self; the self of the ego, the self that is desperate to cling onto whatever superficial means it can to create a false sense of importance and standing in the world.

There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

So what holds us in a collective pattern of fear about someone or something outside our self, that often doesn’t obviously affect us? Most of the time, it’s a lack of knowledge, misunderstanding and the danger in how the unknown makes us feel. Often, our own insecurities are in the hotseat when stigma is present.

It is one thing to hold our own fear, but an other entirely when that fear is being reinforced with messaging from the media, social circles and loved ones. It snowballs into a collective fear that drives stigmatisation into an even stronger foothold, and creates a further separation that embeds itself into the culture.

An interlude of change.

Sometimes stigmas can change, even quickly. Remember the first days of the pandemic? People who refused to wear masks were widely stigmatised. Now, the tables have turned, and I can report as a last-woman standing, I often feel stigmatised for keeping mine on in crowded indoor spaces.

Another example of the changing tide of stigma is in the world of psychedelics. Once hailed as the potential messiah for mental health (as covered in Life Magazine in the 1957; an original cornerstone of AA), in the 1960s the US government shut down all of the progressive, promising research happening on both coasts of the USA largely because of fear, launching us into the dark ages of plant medicine coined 'The War on Drugs' by Richard Nixon. Today, largely because of a handful of revolutionary researchers, doctors, writers and public figures, we are on the cusp of a more accepting resurgance after many years of stigma.

De-stigmatising Stigma.

Going against the grain and speaking out about personal experience regarding stigma can be threatening, and also a very brave thing to do, yet it can feel terrifying and lonely all the same. I have always encouraged myself to write openly about things that matter to me on this blog, hoping that my perspective or experiences may help someone else who might be able to relate; or possibly to give an alternate view for consideration. Even being aware that these views may not resonate or sit well with every reader, the truth is, that I have censored myself over the years - I have withheld a part of me that I might consider controversial, or inappropriate. When I look deeper into what has held me back (and believe me, I have), I realise there is a part of me that has had some very real experiences of being excluded when sharing my (sometimes unusual) views. That sense of exclusion takes me back even further, to a younger part of me that grew up believing that in order to be loved, accepted and seen, I needed to please people; to see things their way rather than my own, or else risk banishment and humiliation.

It can be scary to revisit old beliefs and work to break out of the habit of staying safe, to stand outside of public opinion and go against the grain. The older I get though, the more I realise these voices are important, they are often voices I respect. And when those provacative messages are delivered with grace, humility and truth, they become emotive, their potency is amplified. Historically, the views that have stood apart from public opinion, from what people want to hear and believe, have often been the ignition for revolution, change and justice.

As a neurodivergent person and mother to an autistic child, I think back to the days when my son was a tiny baby. Before he was diagnosed and before I had any incling to suspect he might be on the spectrum, I remember specifically thinking to myself that having an autistic child would be the most heartbreaking thing I could imagine. Writing this brings up a lot of sadness and shame, but it is the truth. Yet my experience of having an autistic child could not be further from this projection I had as a younger me, full of fear and misunderstanding. As I sit here today, knowing my son and many others who are neurodivergent, on the spectrum or carring another mental health label (bi-polar, borderline personality, depression, to name a few), these relationships have been a great gift in my life, not just an honour, but a priviledge. These human connections have been a window into better understanding myself and all of humanity; it has been a hospicing of softr of my own judgements and belief systems that I was never proud of, creating a space for a more compassionate, inclusive state of mind. Better late than never.

So here is a reminder for us all. You, dear reader, always have a choice about what you read, how you think, and the influence these outside and inside voices have in your life; you have power and potency and influence in your own life, and in the lives of so many others. Don't waste the opportunity to make your true voice heard.

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