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stigma keeps people from healing

by Kristance Harlow

Over the holidays, I got into a heated debate at the dinner table over the most effective way to combat racism. This interaction shed light on a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between destigmatization and normalization.

Stigma is a negative attitude towards people based on one aspect of their experience or identity. To destigmatize something is to remove the barriers of shame and open the door to dialogue. To normalize something is to integrate a behavior or belief into mainstream society and to accept it as a common and unremarkably ordinary part of life. Destigmatizing rape does not normalize rapists; rather, it works to combat victim-shaming. To destigmatize conversations on race in America does not normalize racists; it removes the disgrace and shame associated with discussing race.

Stigma is a term that is frequently misunderstood and misapplied. It is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Stigma expects us to stuff it all down, it tells us we must be ashamed of the truth. A lack of education contributes to stigma, and stigma itself discourages education on the stigmatized topic. This is why stigmatized topics tend to be passionately divisive. From addiction to racism, there are people with strong opinions on both sides of the issue.

Children who are incarcerated for sexual crimes are a prime example of the dangers of stigma. A major part of treatment involves the young offenders speaking about the unspeakable shame of their illegal sexual behavior. This often leads to, or is grown out of, admission of abuse done onto them. Stigma keeps us all from admitting things done to us, and things we have done to others.

In 1986, the University of Oklahoma opened a family-oriented treatment group to care for children who commit sex offenses. Their program is heavily invested in breaking down stigma and emphasizes education and therapy.

Anti-stigma treatment works. The Oklahoma program has an incredibly low recidivism rate of only 3 to 5 percent. Youth sex offenders who do not receive treatment of any kind have a recidivism rate between 5 and 15 percent. Enforcing a stigma-based penal code for juvenile sex offenders isn’t as effective as an anti-stigma approach. Children and teenagers are still developing and maturing, with proper guidance and therapy they can redirect their energies and change into responsible and productive members of society. This approach doesn’t work the same for adults, but for children, it works.

This example is poignant because sex offenses involving children, even when young people are also the perpetrators, are among the most horrifying crimes. We tend to see sex offenders as pariahs for life, as if they have a deep character defect that can never be fixed. Childhood is where stigma digs in with its roots. Breaking down stigma doesn’t make sex crimes acceptable and good; it holds people accountable for their actions while giving space for growth and the admission of truth.

Stigma is often cited as an effective tool to deter people from deviant behavior. While it may play a minor role in preventing non-offenders from committing a crime, it plays a major role in the high rate of recidivism. In one classic restorative justice theory by John Braithwaite, there are two main kinds of stigmatization. Reintegrative shaming focuses on the behavior but is respectful, forgiving and keeps social bonds intact. Disintegrative shaming ostracizes the shamed individual and nearly guarantees they will commit further “shameful” acts. Once a problem exists, pure stigmatization won’t make it go away. Stigma within the justice system is one thing, but how does stigma function in other parts of society?

Related: Shame Withers in Sunlight: An Open Letter to the Stanford Rape Survivor

Russell Brand posted a video about drug addiction on his YouTube channel. The Trews show is where he takes on the task of breaking down social and political issues from a decidedly intersectional slant. In a recent episode, he posed the question, “Who is really causing our addiction epidemic?” Brand structured this episode around clips from the O’Reilly Factor. One such clip featured Charles Krauthammer, a trained psychiatrist (non-practicing) turned conservative political columnist, telling O’Reilly, “It’s very important to stigmatize certain things … And when you destigmatize certain things, you get more of it.”

Drug use has long been stigmatized, and this stigma has never prevented or aided in reducing rates of substance abuse or dependency. Punishment of addiction is not an effective method of reducing addiction. Stigmatization prevents people with addictions from seeking help. Merely the label of addict or alcoholic is enough to deter people from treatment. No one plans on becoming an addict. Addiction treatment is seen in a much different light than treatment for non-addiction medical conditions. It is more difficult to obtain funding, and addicts have a hard time getting insurance coverage for rehabilitation. Even if someone is clean and sober, stigmatization of addiction results in discrimination and social problems. Research published in Psychiatric Services, found that 78 percent of people would not want to work closely with someone who either has or used to have a substance abuse disorder.

It isn’t just addiction that is treated this way. All kinds of mental illnesses are so laden with stigma that only 41 percent of people with a mental disorder are likely to receive treatment this year. Among children, that number isn’t much higher; only 51 percent of youth aged between 8 and 15 receive mental health care each year. When an illness is stigmatized, that illness is less likely to be treated. Post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of war was so shamed that it wasn’t until the 20th century that psychiatrists made concerted efforts to banish the stigma of stress disorders caused by war.

Most post-traumatic stress disorders are non-combat-related and arise from events in people’s personal lives. Dr. Judith Herman, in her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, explains that when victims of sexual assault refuse to be stigmatized, they are insisting “upon the rightness, the dignity of their distress.” Stigma silences people and strengthens the barrier between private life and public awareness. By taking control of the narrative, people once stigmatized are able to act “as the agents rather than the objects of inquiry.”

Herman explains that stigma and denial function in similar ways. She writes:

“But when the traumatic events of are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

Stigma only works for the benefit of bystanders and perpetrators. Removing stigma forces us all to bear witness to the truth. The same function operates when racism is stigmatized. It is not a deterrent to racists, it is a deterrent to challenging racism. Destigmatizing something does not make the problem acceptable, it makes confronting the problem acceptable by opening dialogue. It takes away the eternal marker of shame that is most often attached to the victim. Even common biological experiences like menstruation are heavy in stigma (pun unintended, but apt). Non-problems become issues through stigmatization, and real problems don’t get solved through stigmatization.


Kristance Harlow is a writer, researcher and journalist — and sometimes all three at the same time. She’s a loudmouth intersectional feminist and advocate for awareness of mental illness, domestic violence and addiction. Her grams once told her, “I can see you marrying Indiana Jones.” She responded, “I’d rather be Indiana Jones” and promptly obtained her master’s degree in archaeology. Originally from no-town USA, she has planted roots in India, England, Scotland, Argentina.

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