Eating disorders, Stigma and Labelling..

Stigma has many definitions and layers.

But from my A-level psychology days the works of a psychologist Goffman defined it as an attribute that is “deeply discrediting’and reduces the bearer from “whole, to a tainted version” of themselves. Though much of his theory has been disputed most still accept this part of the definition.Goffman definition

“n. Stigma; the negative social attitude attached to a characteristic of an individual that may be regarded as a mental, physical, or social deficiency. A stigma implies social disapproval and can lead unfairly to discrimination against and exclusion of the individual’. Definition

Stigma is not a new concept, dating back to Ancient Greek and Latin, where it’s common meaning “a mark, or “sign of” as well as ‘to brand undesirable”, hence the origin of the word.

Labelling has been an area of great debate for decades. Various psychologists and sociologists have attempted to argue in favour of labelling and it’s impact upon stigma or refute it. Each arguing different consequences of labelling.

Regardless, one thing I have witnessed as someone with an eating disorder is a fear of attaching a label and the stigma associated with it. The reason I am writing this was prompted by a discussion with someone within the ED recovery community this week. They themselves were struggling with the label they had just been given at diagnosis. I recall vividly feeling this way, it served as a barrier to me seeking help.

It reminded me of my very first appointment with my then therapist. After completing the EDE-Q questionnaire and the weigh in, she said with conviction “You have anorexia nervosa”

I remember practically begging her to not attach “the label”, it meant everything to me, to not have this “blemish the tarnish” on my record. It felt dirty, shameful. Even though, I had know myself, in the moments free of the anasognosia I had had Anorexia for many years but NO one had formally named it, labelled it, discriminated against me for it. Suddenly this would be the first thing doctors saw on my record. It mattered.

This fear appears to be a common amongst many fellow eating disorder sufferers. I expect, though I cannot blanketly say so, for many other mental health issues.

Labelling has been attached to concepts including, self-fulfilling prophecy, stereotyping and stigma. Suggesting close interconnection. Labelling theory broadly states people behave or identify in ways that society or people have labelled them. This can also work on a societal level that people develop stereotypes attached to a label and expect specific behavioural patterns attached to those with a label. This can have positive or negative consequences.

Lending itself to the self-fufilling prophecy whereby an expectation results in fulfillment of embodying the label.

As these roles tend to be “deviant” from the societal norm stigmas can develop. These are derived from negative stereotypes and thus resulting prejudices and discrimination result.

The structure of stigma can then be further categorised into self stigma, label avoidance, public stigma, social and structural stigmas: ( this is by no way comprehensive and just my simpleton understanding). For this post I’m focussing on stigma within mental health.

There’s a breadth of information available pertaining to the many types, mechanisms and structures of stigma.

1. Self stigma: Self stigma impacts upon how you see yourself and your interpersonal relationships. Self stigma can be a barrier in recovery, in seeking help. It can distort perceptions of how you believe other people view you. An example in the case of anorexia might be: “ I am not worthy of help, seeking help makes me weak” self prejudices– “having an eating disorder is my fault, Why would anyone want to employ me, be friends with me”. Self-stigma and resulting discrimination: self-imposed isolation, the person cuts off from world and opportunities, including help)

2. Label avoidance: An individual may be aware of stigma surrounding a particular diagnosis and thus engages in behaviours to avoid the label. With respect to eating disorders this might look like: “having a diagnosis will mean I am vain, or I chose this “lifestyle” so they avoid seeing a heath professional. Prejudices that result- ‘I am ashamed to have an eating disorder, to be seen as someone with anorexia’. Discrimination: Concealing the “label” from my family or employer and therefore not being able to attend important appointments, because I am afraid I will lose respect and my career. The best way to combat this is through finding your voice, self-disclosure. This may be through sharing your diagnosis with a small circle or friends, family or being open to talking more broadly. (This is very personal)

3. Public stigma: Where general beliefs and prejudices are affirmed to a marginalised group ultimately leading to discrimination towards them. ‘People with eating disorders are vain, People choose to have eating disorders’. Prejudices may manifest as; employers are worried to employ the person, as they may fear their mental health makes them unreliable. Discrimination may result in a person not being employed.

4. Societal/ Structural stigma: this refers to policies invoked by large organisations or systems such as governments, health facilities that lay down restrictions on opportunities and rights of those with mental illness. An excellent example of this is weight stigma. The DSM-V label of atypical anorexia. Where this diagnosis is exactly the same in terms of criteria as anorexia with one difference the sufferer is not of a low BMI. The prejudice- fat people cannot experience as severe symptoms or implications as those who are underweight. Which is not the case. The discrimination that may result; many people living in larger bodies are denied access to health care or resources because of their size. This is a big one. Structural stigma is the one that affects marginalised communities. It’s interconnected to societal stigma. How we address this is through education, challenging the narrative. But it takes time.

There are MANY types of stigma and I have barely touched the surface. My aim was merely to shed light on how public, structural and self stigma are closely interlinked and can serve as a barrier to those with mental health problems from seeking help. Understanding the origins of stigma means we can continue to break down the cross links within it. My hope is that one day, no one will fear seeking help or a diagnosis because the label will not hold power.

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