We’ve all heard the term “health stigma” before. Mental health, sexual disorders, even cancer– they’ve been “stigmatized”. But what does that mean?
These so-called “stigmas” are what experts call the common cultural beliefs that a disease or disorder indicates a negative trait about the sufferer, often incorrectly. For example, someone dealing with depression isn’t necessarily lazy or weak, and someone living with erectile dysfunction isn’t necessarily unmanly or bad in bed. These issues, although stereotyped, are real disorders and should always be taken seriously and with an open mind so that those living with them can find help.
These stigmas have created a culture of fear, shame, and intimidation within sufferers, often leaving them too afraid to seek medical help or support, and ultimately suffering in silence. Although several forms of effective treatment for anxiety exist, for example, experts still believe that 75% of cases go untreated. They often credit this to the sufferer’s own embarrassment about how the illness reflects on them or a lack of information and communication about how to get help.
It’s critical that those suffering from these stigmatized issues are able to find help and get the treatment they need to lead a healthy life. The advent of technology and more open communication is making it easier to find new routes to wellness despite negative stereotypes, but the key is to explore what works for each person individually.
New avenues of treatment
Medical treatment used to be limited to a doctor’s visit: a potential nightmare for those embarrassed about their condition. Awkward conversations with a few different nurses, then a doctor, perhaps an examination, until finally a diagnosis can be made and treatment prescribed (which, of course, would have to be picked up in-person at the pharmacy).
Now, people who have questions or want to get a doctor’s opinion can do so privately and over online chat or video call by using a telemedicine platform. These new forms of doctors’ appointments use technology to connect sufferers with diagnoses and prescription plans without having to discuss a potentially embarrassing issue face-to-face or with several people. This can create a much less-traumatizing experience for sufferers and easier route to treatment. No matter what ways patients find help, it’s critical that they do, and safely. Not only can it provide treatment and ease the symptoms of the disorder, but a sufferer’s ability to finally label and fully understand the condition that they’ve been dealing with for so long can also provide mental and emotional relief.
Support groups are a great form of treatment for some mental health issues, but they also provide an enormously important space for people who suffer from all different disorders to come together and share their common experiences. And, research shows that this method can be extremely beneficial, especially for several stigmatized diseases like alcoholism, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
The ability to openly discuss struggles, fears, learnings, and experiences with disorders without fear or judgment can be very therapeutic. It provides a relieving context around symptoms that can affect the personal and work lives of sufferers, as well as an opportunity for family members, friends, and coworkers to join and learn about the disorder from others. There are several ways to find relevant support groups, but it’s most important for participants to be sure they feel welcome and open in whichever group they choose.
Staying well-informed about new research and effective treatments is an important way for sufferers to not only understand the best ways to find help, but also to feel confident enough to defy any cultural standards placed on their disorder. Knowledge is power and will help those dealing with issues on their own to feel a little less alone. The Centers for Disease Control has fairly comprehensive articles about the best treatment options and important screenings or symptoms for common diseases, stigmatized or not. Alternatively, the National Institute of Health offers free access to the latest research happening for several different health issues. Both are great sources for information and opportunities for further reading.
Then, speaking out about that education is also an important way to contribute to the cause. If one person is strong enough to be open and start a conversation, it can help personalize an issue, break down barriers created by stigma, and educate the public about the disorder. Then, it might open the door for someone else who’s struggling to feel confident enough to get help themselves, and know where to go for it.
Living with stigmatized health issues is not easy. It can lead to experiencing shame from others, discrimination, and even self-doubt. But, it’s important to end stigmas and begin teaching self-acceptance in order to ensure everyone is able to lead healthy, happy lives.