What is it about?
The burden of stigma is, still in our time, excessively heavy for the individuals who have to face it and carry it with them. In order to alleviate the suffering it causes in all spheres of an individual's life, it is essential to understand; the essence of this phenomenon, its impacts and implications, as well as the means that make it possible to fight against this concept which should no longer have its place today.
Broadly, stigma is the public criticism and devaluation of a person because of a characteristic they possess that is judged to be unfavorable, harmful and/or feared. It is generally exercised by a group believing itself to be in a position of superiority and establishing certain social norms, with regard to a person or another group who is then considered inferior to it because of a divergence from the established norms.
According to the theoretical model of Link and Phelan (2001)1, stigmatization consists of a mechanism involving several other concepts that are both interrelated and follow each other in stages. The first consists of labeling, that is to say that certain differences are noted and distinguished in an individual. These differences may be based on physical appearance (among others; skin color, overweight, apparent physical disability, disease affecting appearance), behavioral and psychological differences (among others; mental disorders, addictions, neurodivergences) and also, non-exhaustively; cultural and political affiliation, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. Then follow negative stereotypes and prejudices, the attribution of faults and negativity towards people who have been marked with a certain characteristic. Stereotypes and the resulting prejudices are most of the time based on untruthful information that comes from limited knowledge and experience. The representation made of the other is then dehumanizing since it only boils down to some of their characteristics and not to their identity as a whole. The third stage consists of the separation, that is the dissociation between the individuals who are part of the “norm” or the “dominant” group, of those who are labeled by a characteristic judged to be harmful and it is then where the mentality “ them against us” arises. However, it is only in the next stage that this mentality materializes and unfortunately becomes more concrete, during discrimination. There are then unfair and negative actions that are put in place to disadvantage individuals or groups deemed to be in the minority and inferior. Discrimination will perpetuate oppression, i.e. the domination of one group over another and the creation of inequalities, as well as the marginalization and social exclusion of members of these groups. This exclusion can contribute to aggravating the mental and physical health of individuals, since they will then have great difficulty in seeking and finding resources that can help them. There is ultimately a deprivation of social power, a loss of social status of individuals within society. Thus, tackling stigma involves tackling each of these contributing elements.
An element that should also not be overlooked in this fight is that stigmatization can occur at different levels, either at the level of the general population, within a community or a more restricted group, at the institutional level/ structural and at the personal level, in the latter case, we then refer to self-stigma, which is one of the consequences of stigmatization before being a subcategory of it. Self-stigma occurs when a person acquiesces to the stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination they experience.
In order to avoid suffering judgment and discrimination, some people, however, tend, when possible, to deliberately conceal characteristics that they believe to be harmful because of the opinion of the “dominant” group. We then refer to a concealed stigmatized identity2. Important components of this concept are, first, the anticipated stigma, that is, the degree to which “minority” individuals believe that they would experience stigmatization by the “majority” group if the concealed characteristic were to come to light. And, second, cultural stigma, the degree to which the characteristic is socially devalued. These two components have a direct impact on the health of the person and the anticipated stigma has a close link with psychological distress, namely the presence or development of depressive and/or anxious symptoms2.
How to act?
One of the most fundamental concepts in the fight against negative social impacts is empowerment. It is through this mechanism that people gain, among other things, more control over their own lives and more political participation in the community3. Two elements that greatly promote empowerment are; the promotion of diversity, as well as social support and solidarity4, the latter being a particularly important factor in protecting against the stress experienced5.
More concretely, this means, for example, acting on each of the elements of the stigmatization mechanism discussed earlier. Negative labeling, stereotyping and prejudice must be fought against, among other things by not noting the characteristics of individuals at impertinent moments. It is also not a question of denying the presence of differences, but rather of emphasizing them, when necessary and relevant, in a positive way, by using appropriate and respectful terminology. It is also important to become aware, learn and educate yourself on these characteristics in a well-intentioned way and to share this knowledge with members of your community and also with individuals occupying a position of power, within an institution. for example. It is also necessary to avoid dehumanization by not attributing to a characteristic a more important place in the life of a person than the latter establishes for him. The identity of individuals is not based on one of their characteristics, or one of their traits, or even on one of their problems. Also, the emphasis must be given priority to the similarities between people and to make room for them, in order to include them in the community.
by Chadia Boucher1. Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing Stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 363 385. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2678626
2. Quinn, D. M., & Chaudoir, S. R. (2009). Living with a concealable stigmatized identity: the impact of anticipated stigma, centrality, salience, and cultural stigma on psychological distress and health. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(4), 634–651. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0015815
3. Perkins, D. D., & Zimmerman, M. A. (1995). Empowerment theory, research, and application. American journal of community psychology, 23(5), 569–579. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02506982
4. Foster-Fishman, P.G., Berkowitz, S.L., Lonnsbury, D.W., Jacobson, S. & Allen, N.A. (2001a). Building collaborative capacity in community coalitions: a review and integrative framework, American Journal of Community Psychology, 29, 241–61
5. Lin, N., Simone, R., Ensel, W. M., & Kuo, W. (1979). Social support, stressful life events, and illness: A model and an empirical test. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 20, 108-119