What Is Stigma?

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A stigma is a negative attitude or idea about a mental, physical, or social feature of a person or group of people. This implies that there is social disapproval. Stigmas are a major concern because they can lead to negative effects such as discrimination.

While there are many different kinds of social stigmas, mental health stigma tends to be very common. It can be strong, and it can impact both mental and physical health outcomes in serious ways. Some symptoms of stigma include social withdrawal or isolation, compromised employment and financial security, physical violence, and more.

This article will discuss what stigma is, the signs and types of stigma, the impacts, and how to cope.

a woman appears tired and is looking out a window

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Signs of Stigma

Signs of stigma may be obvious, or they may be so subtle that they go unnoticed. For example, a stigma can be presented as a joke that not everyone recognizes as a negative view. Even when stigmas go unnoticed, the effects of the stigma can be damaging.

Signs of stigma include:

  • Using slang or labels to exclude people or groups of people
  • Jokes about a physical or mental health condition or race, ethnicity, religion, etc.
  • Halloween costumes that portray people or groups of people in a negative way
  • Assumptions made about a person based on a physical or mental health condition or race, ethnicity, religion, etc.
  • People of certain groups repeatedly being shown in the media in a negative way
  • Different treatment that is either isolating or harmful because of a mental, physical, or social feature of a person or group of people
  • Laws or institutional regulations that isolate or negatively impact certain groups of people

Types of Stigma

There are three primary types of stigma that describe the broad categories of the attributes of a person related to the negative thoughts. They include mental illness stigma, physical deformation stigma, and race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., stigma. Within these categories, there are additional types of stigmas.

Mental Health Stigma

Mental health stigma is a negative attitude or idea about a mental health feature of a person or group of people. It relates to social disapproval of the person or group based on the mental health feature.

The negative beliefs can come from a variety of sources, including the person with that mental health feature. For example, stigmas are often associated with mental illnesses such as depression. This stigma may prevent people with depression from pursuing educational and career goals due to a belief of being less capable than people without depression.

Types of mental health stigma include:

  • Social stigma or public stigma: When society or the general public share negative thoughts or beliefs about a person or group of people with a mental health condition
  • Structural stigma or institutional stigma: Systemic stigma of mental illness at a higher level of government or organization that impacts policies or decision making
  • Self-perceived stigma or self-stigma: When a person with a mental health condition had negative thoughts or beliefs about themselves based on that mental illness
  • Health practitioner stigma: When the care of a person is negatively impacted by stereotypes, thoughts, or associations of the provider about mental illness
  • Associative stigma or courtesy stigma: A stigma that impacts people connected with someone with a mental health condition, such as friends or family members

Stigma Associated With Physical Deformation

Physical deformation stigma is a negative attitude or idea about a feature of a person or group of people related to a physical difference or disability. It relates to social disapproval of the person or group based on the physical feature or condition. This can lead to serious negative effects.

Like mental health stigma, there are different types of physical deformation stigma. Examples of this type of stigma include negative associations with deafness and blindness, or stigma associated with certain health conditions like HIV or sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Stigma Associated with Race, Ethnicity, Religion, Ideology, etc.

Stigma associated with race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., is a negative attitude or idea about one of these, or similar, features of a person or group of people. It relates to social disapproval of the person or group based on the feature or features.

Like mental health stigma, there are different types of race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., stigma. This type of stigma can impact generations and has influenced laws and politics throughout history.

History of Stigma

A sociologist named Erving Goffman was a leader of early research of stigmas. He is credited with identifying the three types of stigmas, though they were initially slightly different. They were:

  • Mental illness stigma was known as stigma due to blemishes of character,
  • Physical deformation stigma was known as stigma due to physical deformity.
  • Tribal stigma included stigma due to race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc.

Continued research of the topic has helped to identify additional components of stigmas and build an understanding of the negative effects, leading to changes to improve the situation. Unfortunately, stigmas are still common. For example, roughly 54% of people experience self-stigma, which can lead to negative effects such as social withdrawal.

Impacts of Social Stigma

Social stigma, or public stigma, is when society or the general public share negative thoughts or beliefs about a person or group of people. For example, a mental health social stigma may be an association between mental illness and danger or a belief that people with mental illness lose control and hurt others.

There can be a big, negative impact from social stigma, and not just for people belonging to that group. This can even prevent people with mental health concerns from seeking treatment.

Stigma Can Create a Stereotype

This type of stigma and the negative effects can harm the people with the condition, people close to them such as friends, family, caregivers, community members, and people who share attributes with them but do not have the condition. It is often seen in the form of stereotypes and discrimination of those with the condition and others.

For example, in addition to someone with depression being discriminated against, someone who is going through a hard time and is sad, but does not have depression, may also be discriminated against. Despite the challenges, there are ways to cope with stigmas.

Coping With Stigma

It is important for anyone experiencing stigma to understand that they are not alone. Treatment is available for mental health conditions, and support is available when facing stigma and discrimination. For example, many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to support employees with work and life concerns including stigmas, discrimination, and issues that negatively impact mental and emotional wellbeing.

There are many things that can be done to cope with mental health stigma both personally and on a larger scale.

Here are some tips for coping with mental health stigma:

  • Seek treatment of mental health conditions
  • Get support from community, school, and workplace resources
  • Notice signs of social withdrawal and reach out to family, friends, and health professionals
  • Talk openly about the facts and realities of mental illness
  • Understand that mental health conditions are illnesses like physical health conditions
  • Be careful with word choices to remain sensitive to others
  • Bring awareness to language and actions that represent stigmas so they can be changed
  • Educate others to help destigmatize mental illness
  • Choose to believe and show others that stigmas are not accurate

Summary

A stigma is a negative attitude or idea about a mental, physical, or social feature of a person or group of people that involved social disapproval. This issue is a big concern for people with mental health conditions and for society. It can lead to discrimination and negatively impact mental health and overall wellbeing.

Mental illness stigma, physical deformation stigma, and race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., stigma are the three primary types of stigma. Despite the negative effects of stigma, there are things that can help cope and overcome these challenges.

A Word From Verywell

Stigmas, including mental health stigmas, can be challenging. The negative effects can touch many different areas of wellbeing and life. If you or someone you know is experiencing stigma, you are not alone. Treatment is available for mental health conditions, and help is available for settings where stigmas and discrimination may exist. Reach out to your workplace, school, community resources, or a healthcare professional for support. You are not your mental illness and it is possible to cope with and overcome theses challenges.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are examples of stigma?

    Some examples of stigmas include ideas that people with mental health conditions are dangerous, people with physical health conditions are unable to contribute to society, and people with a specific race, ethnicity, religion, or ideology are less intelligent than others.

  • What is a stigma in simple terms?

    A stigma is a negative attitude about a mental, physical, or social feature. This can lead to poor treatment of groups of people, impaired mental and physical health of those groups, and other negative effects.

  • What is a stigma in health?

    A stigma in health can relate to physical health, mental health, or both. It is when someone with a physical or mental health concern is viewed negatively because of that health challenge.

  • What are the three types of stigma?

    The three types of stigma are stigma association with mental illness, stigma associated with physical deformation, and stigma attached to race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., as identified by Erving Goffman.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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