January 8, 2024

The Enigma of Stigma

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

My son’s limbs and face are badly disfigured. He has had three surgeries and will need more later. My bright, cheerful son has become withdrawn, antisocial, and sickly. He is bullied and stigmatized, which I believe is contributing to his health problems. Help!

Your concern is warranted, and we commend you for trying to understand and help your son (and yourself!). Individuals are commonly stigmatized when their physical or mental challenges are devalued, discredited, or misunderstood by others. Victims of stigma may be shunned, ridiculed, or even physically and emotionally abused. Supporting your son, or any stigmatized person, involves demonstrating compassion and providing a supportive environment. Your constructive, practical support will help counteract the negative health effects of being stigmatized: isolation, social withdrawal, apathy, reduced help-seeking, anxiety, depression, self-destructive thoughts and behavior, and acute and chronic stress, which themselves provoke physical and mental Illness. Consider the following:

Learn all that you can about your son’s condition, prognosis, and potential future state with and without further surgeries. 

Choose respectful, inclusive words that focus on him rather than on his physical challenges. His condition does not define him.

Encourage your son’s self-expression and acknowledge his feelings and views of the challenges he faces; listen actively and allow him to share his thoughts and feelings without interruption.

Offer practical support, such as helping with daily tasks and any of his specific challenges.

Promote inclusion. Encourage social inclusion to the extent he is willing and able to participate in activities and events.

Help create a safe, accepting, and welcoming environment and promote an inclusive, accepting attitude among relatives, friends, church members, and community.

Be a positive role model. By setting an example, you contribute to creating a more supportive and accepting environment.

Be positive, but be realistic in supporting his goals and aspirations the way any loving parent would regarding education, career, and personal development. Offer encouragement and assistance without excessive pampering or acceding to unrealistic or harmful attitudes and behaviors on his part.

Seek and encourage professional help and support from counselors, psychologists, and age-appropriate support groups for his specific condition. Health-care professionals can foster stigma-free environments and provide compassionate care irrespective of the health conditions or personal characteristics of their patients.

Be fervent and constant in prayer and help your son to place his confidence in God and cast his cares upon Him. Many people don’t realize the enigma stigma causes. It negatively impacts the “stigmatizers” and the “stigmatized.” So intercede in prayer and take every opportunity to educate the “stigmatizers.” Terror management theory suggests people shame signs of sickness or misfortune to soothe their own fears, so they need help too. Facts dispel myths, understanding reduces ignorance, love and compassion reduce fear (theirs, his, and yours)! Let your son experience God’s love through you, and remember, he can have hope. Just like the biblical story of Mephibosheth and King David, your son has a special place at the King’s table. In the new earth all will be made perfect!