Stigma…the monster in the corner of our minds

In my world, stigma is a four letter word. This is because in my view, stigma is the root of all of the problems we experience in our contemporary world. Stigma is a silencer, an eraser, which seeks to stop and destroy important discussions we should be having as a civilization. Defined, stigma is a mark or sign associated with disgrace. In our contemporary understanding, this mark does not have to be tangible. We don’t walk around with scarlet letters on our chests. However, having certain labels placed upon us can be a stigma. Labels like “homosexual,” “tranny,” “mentally ill,” “suicidal,” “slut…” the list can go on.

The reality is that when we place a stigma on a particular group of people, we effectively place an embargo on all conversations associated with that person or their identity. This week at #AAS16, I had the privilege to hear Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Mark Graham and his wife Carol Graham tell their story about losing their son to suicide. One thing that Mrs. Graham said which really hit home to me is that there was so much shame associated with their son’s death that they could not talk about it. The reality is that by not being able to talk about suicide, and by associating death by suicide with selfishness, cowardice, and “being crazy,” we effectively are playing a role in the 42,000+ suicide deaths which occur in the United States each year. If we did talk about psychological disorders and suicide as openly as we talk about our religion, then just think about how that number would decrease. People would know that suicide is an unfortunate and devastating outcome which is the result of intense psychological pain and disconnection from others. People would also know that it is okay to ask for help. That asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you need to ask for help, please click here >>

The very same thing can be said of other groups of people in our society. There is intense stigma associated with those of the LGBTQ+ community. Using terms like “homosexual” and “tranny” (both terms to avoid by the way), the lives of these people are reduced to a very small portion of who they actually are. We vilify and dehumanize LGBTQ+ people. We call them mentally ill, sexual perverts, and predators. We seek to criminalize the LGBTQ+ people under the guise of religious liberty. The result: large rates of homelessness, depression, victimization, and suicide. Indeed, the LGBTQ+ community has higher rates of these issues than any other. It’s no wonder we still think LGBTQ+ people make up 10% of the population. Who would want to come out under such circumstances? The reality: being lesbian, gay, or bisexual is not a psychological disorder. Rather, the psychological issues faced by the LGB population are associated with stigma and social disconnectedness caused by this stigma. Indeed, the APA rejects and denounces any therapy which would seek to “cure” LGB people of same-sex attraction. Similarly, transgender and queer individuals are also not psychologically disturbed. Being transgender can be associated with gender dysphoria; however, this is not always the case. Indeed, all major medical associations agree that hormone replacement and gender reassignment are the best and most effective treatment for gender dysphoria.

Lastly, our treatment of sexual behaviors in our culture is highly stigmatized. While we are okay with our advertisements and television programs containing explicit sexual content, even to the limit of soft porn, heaven forbid anyone, especially women, explore their sexuality. It is so bad that slut shaming has become a norm in response to reports of sexual violence and rape. We refuse to talk about sex and then wonder why we have such high rates of sexual violence, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy. And while conservative politicians and action groups are busy legislating away women’s health and pushing abstinence-only sex ed, we as a society are completely ignoring the fact that if we actually talked about sexuality, rather than labeling sexual beings as “sluts,” we might actually reduce sexual violence, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy. As a TA at NDSU, I teach several lectures a semester in the Developmental Psychology (Lifespan) course. One of those lectures is on sexual health. It appalls me, when I survey the class, how many students out of my 180 have never had a comprehensive sexual education course. It shocks me that they do not know about their bodies. The reason? We are shamed into thinking that sex is bad and dirty and should only happen in the sanctity of the marriage bed. In reality, sex is a normal part of the human experience, and experiencing it and exploring it is perfectly healthy and normal.

So what can we do to reduce and eradicate stigma?  The first step is seeking to learn more about stigma. The second is to identify stigmas which you actively participate in, such as slut shaming, spreading misinformation about LGBTQ+ individuals, and using terms like “committed suicide.” Finally, creating safe spaces in your life. This is very important because these spaces allow others the chance to talk to you about what they are going through without the threat of being judged and stigmatized. Some may argue “safe spaces” encourage “kids these days” to be soft. I would argue that they are a sign we as a culture recognize the harm that forcing generations of people to “suck it up” and “grow a pair” as done to the psychological and emotional health of our culture. Indeed, talking about our issues in a safe space has the wonderful effect of creating emotionally stronger individuals (this is what therapy is, remember). Making these spaces can be difficult if you don’t know what to do, there are excellent resources for learning how to combat stigma, and I offer workshops on this very topic. Teachers have a really important role to play in this area as well, and there are plenty of free or low-cost resources for teachers seeking additional training.

As we part remember that you have an important role to play in making the world a better place for everyone: Make no peace with oppression and love each other.

If you need help, I am here for you!

– Darcy