The Many Faces of Stigma

The theme “Live. Learn. Share hope.” of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) National Convention to be held June 27-30 in New Orleans provides an excellent launching pad to discuss stigma as we live, learn and share hope about people affected by mental illness. Stigma, like so many of life’s experiences, can be as individual as the person experiencing it.

Indeed, individuals experience stigma through varied lenses or filters. My lens is one of someone who grew up in the 1960s, urban poor; who was proud to wear a U.S. military uniform, later becoming a father and living with a behavioral health diagnosis. It’s through the lens of my own lived experience that I view things.

The recognized forms of stigma

However, for the purpose of brevity, it’s generally accepted that stigma exists in the general public, thus the term “public stigma”. “Personal stigma”, on the other hand, is often referred to as negative self-talk. Finally, “structural stigma” encompasses those company policies, practices and procedures that tend to disempower the recovery process.

A report released in 2017 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine titled, “Ending Discrimination Against People with Mental and Substance Use Disorders; The Evidence for Stigma Change”, confirms that stigma comes in many forms with various nuances and subtlety. Interestingly, stigma in America is unlike any other in the world. Specifically, “Americans are more likely to believe in the dangerousness of people with mental illness than are citizens of other developed, industrialized nations,” the report states. By way of further example, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey of just a few years ago suggests that the majority of those surveyed did not want individuals with a mental health diagnosis living next door nor going to school with their children.

[S]tigma comes in many forms with various nuances and subtlety. Interestingly, stigma in America is unlike any other in the world.

Yet, there is still room to suggest that stigma is declining, as evidenced by the growing voluntary disclosures of mental health disorders. Yes, today’s generation of young Americans are more sensitive and caring when it comes to individuals with differences as noted in the Kaiser survey; however, those differences are measured. We are certainly more aware of stigma’s harmful effects for those seeking mental health care and for those wishing to remain in care. It is this very awareness that helps to inform care for the person and the family members of those receiving treatment.

Addressing stigma, inside and out

To that end, Beacon Health Options takes addressing stigma seriously. For example, Beacon employs many Peer Specialists, individuals who rely on their own lived experience to assist those we serve with their personal and intersecting stigmas. In the words of NAMI, they have lived; they have learned; and they share hope, to help people on their personal road to recovery.

Further, our thought leaders, subject matter experts and clinical staff have, through national conferences and symposiums, helped others to better understand the strategies to address structural stigma and to build a culture of recovery and thus help to clean up the vestiges of structural stigma. Indeed, Beacon has a long, rich history of association with NAMI, with Beacon employees serving as members of local NAMI affiliates and on national and state NAMI boards; joining NAMIWalks teams; or volunteering as teachers for NAMI signature family psychosocial educational programs. Finally, Beacon is a founding and active member of the Stamp Out Stigma campaign, an initiative spearheaded by the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness to address public stigma.

Our mission statement, and Beacon’s identity as a company, directly reflects who we are: we aid and support those people with no-fault mental health diagnoses to live their lives to the fullest extent possible. Our mission runs parallel to the NAMI mission – their people are our people. We continue to live, learn and share hope in our collective effort to overcome stigma and invite you to do the same in your homes, your communities, and places of work.

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2 Comments. Leave new

Dr. Tomer Levin
June 19, 2018 6:45 pm

Many people with schizophrenia are not even told of their diagnosis. One of the reasons is stigma. Researchers are developing communication training programs to help mental health professionals say, “You have schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a very treatable brain disease… Let’s discuss what hearing this means to you and your family.”

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Kristin Dillon
June 20, 2018 1:35 pm

Thank you Clarence for this great article! As a woman in long term recovery with various diagnoses, I consider myself a survivor. Speaking out about my mental health and substance use disorders gives me strength and takes away the shame and stigma. I appreciate the link to the “growing voluntary disclosures of mental health disorders”. It reminds me that there is power in telling our recovery stories and that there is a movement of people with lived experience that will not be silenced. Your article is an eye opening reminder that we are making progress with stigma, but still have a long way to go. I truly appreciate the way that Beacon recognizes stigma and employs us peer specialists. It is an extremely encouraging, hopeful, and supportive atmosphere to work under.

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