“If you have a stereotype message thrown at you often enough it can start to
sink in, like maybe it’s really true about you. When it isn’t.”
The many ways that people negatively stereotype, denigrate, and discriminate against each other based on social identities or personal situations is called “societal stigmatization” or just “stigma.” Whether around HIV, mental health, race, gender, religion, or anything else, the harm done by oppression is hurtful and dangerous.
This harm is compounded by internalized stigma – when a person absorbs negative stereotypes from their social environment into their thinking about themselves as true. Also called “self stigma,” internalized stigma can be about any disparaged social identity (e.g., internalized racism, internalized sexism, internalized homophobia, etc.) or health or life condition. For example, it is estimated that over 40% of people living with schizophrenia have moderate or high levels of internalized stigma (Brohan et al., 2010), and over 79% of individuals living with HIV endorse one or more HIV-related stigma statements (Baugher et al., 2017). Such internalized stigma is directly related to subjective distress and negative health outcomes, noted below.
Internalized stigma is not the individual’s fault. If one is in a physical environment where the air is polluted, for example, it is nearly impossible not to inhale some of that pollution into one’s lungs. Similarly, our social environments are often polluted with stigma, and it can be impossible to not absorb some of it into our thinking about ourselves.
When this happens, the person is left with the harms caused by internalized stigma – damaged self-concept, negative self-beliefs, nagging feelings of worthlessness, or shame, or hopelessness. These are dangerous. They regularly contribute to people not living their lives fully, not using or accepting help and support their deserve, and to depression, anger, self-isolation, self-neglect, and suicidality.
Fortunately, there are things each person can do for themselves to reduce and resist internalized stigma, while we all work to erode societal stigmatization
One fundamental strategy for reducing the harm of internalized stigma is to be aware of its existence as a hazard to your well-being. Knowing what it is and that it is dangerous can help us watch out for it in ourselves and others, and to question self-beliefs that drag us down. That is, each person can consciously think about whether certain self-beliefs are accurate and helpful for them. And to reject those beliefs if they are not. This can be especially important for self-beliefs tied to our identities or life/health conditions that are stereotyped or discriminated.
The Internalized Stigma Interest Group, of the Howard University annual International Conference on Stigma, is a network of people interested in promoting the awareness and reduction of internalized stigmatization of all kinds. We are activists and academics, people with lived experience, researchers, program workers, clinicians, students, and many other things – sometimes within just one person! Currently we have many people interested in internalized stigma & HIV and internalized stigma & mental health concerns, but our network members and interests are varied, and everyone is welcome.
The purpose of our interest group is to help like-minded people connect so that we can support and assist each other in our work to raise awareness about the dangers of internalized stigma and about ways to reduce and resist it. We meet once per month for thought-provoking conversations, projects, and resource sharing about internalized stigma. Come join us!
Join the group here: https://groups.google.com/g/internalized-stigma
Monthly conversation hours (as of March 2022): Fourth Wednesday of each month, from 3-4pm EST
Emily Petti, Joe DeLuca, & Alicia Lucksted, Internalized Stigma Interest Group Co-Chairs