Why Stigma Has Had Its Day

January 17, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

In all honesty, I had never heard of The Society for Curious Thought until last week. It says it exists to foster curiosity and intellectual discovery in pursuit of a better future, which sounds good to me. On closer inspection, it turns out to host an eclectic and fascinating collection of articles and contributions covering arts, science, politics, personal experience, the environment and fiction.

As a result of my call-out last week to Fellows and others about mental health and employment, I was contacted by the Society’s Director, Simon Marriott FRSA, and asked to submit an article further exploring the issues I had written about. I was very pleased to be asked, and my piece, Why Stigma Has Had Its Day has just been published.

My article attempts to summarise an issue adjacent to those I raised last week in my two blog posts about mental health and employment – the problems associated with using ‘stigma’ as a conceptual framework for talking about the social exclusion of people with experience of mental illness.

Here’s a taster:

Discrimination and social exclusion are very real aspects of living with the experience of mental illness and the consequences can be grave: loss of opportunity in education, employment, housing and civic participation. Thirteen years ago, the disability rights campaigner, Liz Sayce did her best to change the way we deal with discrimination against people with experience of mental illness. She wrote an important article explaining why using the notion of ‘stigma’ to describe what is actually discrimination is in itself dangerously marginalising. Disappointingly, no one took very much notice, and these days, ‘stigma’ is still the primary conceptual apparatus used to describe what happens when people who have experienced mental illness are unfairly treated. 

Sayce’s key point was that the notion of stigma is problematic because it locates the problem within the person with the mental illness. This has the effect of individualising what is really a social problem. It amounts to a kind of victim blaming. Stigma (literally, mark of shame) carries with it the implication of there being something inherently discreditable about the person being stigmatised. Sayce argues that the ‘mark of shame’ should not be attached to the person with the mental health problem, but rather with the person who is behaving unjustly towards them.

It might be tempting to cast aside such issues as being merely semantic trifles. You might think that anti-stigma campaigners are fighting a good fight, and we all know what we mean when we talk about the stigma of mental illness. In fact, the reasons why discrimination against people with mental health problems continues, may well be partly down to the persistence of a damaging conceptual framework. Conceptual models carry enormous power. The implicit assumptions about where responsibility lies, or whose is the problem, determine to a large degree how we approach the issue as a society.

If you want to read more, please visit The Society for Curious Thought.

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