Our blog title refers to the arbitrary moral judgments that can attach to people: “Lazy” from our research on obesity, “Crazy” – from our work on depression, ADHD, and other mental illness, and “Disgusting” – from our studies on hygiene. These damaging labels are part of how people become stigmatized.
Stigma is when people are treated as less valued and pushed away from and out of society because they have some arbitrary characteristic, like a physical mark, disease diagnosis, or “wrong” behaviors. In part because of the deep human fear of infection and illness, health and health care is a domain in where many of the most common and powerful stigmas emerge and gain traction.
Stigma undoes health. There’s a lot research (including our own) showing that when people feel stigmatized they’re less likely to seek health care, exhibit much higher levels of stress, and they’re more likely to be victimized by a range of social and economic forms of discrimination. All of this in turn leads to widening of health disparities and spiraling of health care costs at the national level.
Yet, we often see stigma sneaking its way into all types of global health interventions, however well intentioned. We started this blog in 2016 as our own intervention of global health interventions. We want to make sure people understand how easy it is to accidentally create new stigmas or intensify existing ones, and do additional harm to those already vulnerable.
We think it’s especially important to shout-out about unintended stigma because it is so much part of “just how things just are” that it can be very hard for health experts to see.
We also hope to encourage empathy — the effective opposite of stigma and the single best tool for its eradication.