The problem with our obsession with stigma

The problem with our obsession with stigma

Anti-stigma campaigns suck away oxygen from a far more urgent cause: ending discrimination.

Tanmoy Goswami
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If you were to believe a recent headline in a major Indian daily, we have achieved a veritable revolution in mental health. Apparently, talking about mental health challenges is 'no longer a taboo subject for our youth', and 'stigma around therapy is now passé'.

Bravo! I guess all of us working in mental health advocacy can pack our bags and go home now.

I read the headline a few times to make sure that I hadn't got it wrong, and that it did in fact make this fantastic claim about the death of stigma in a society where mental illness is still freely used as an insult; and where the mental health conversation is disproportionately dominated by a small, elite, English-speaking club (of which I am a member).

Satisfied that I had indeed read it right, I did what I generally do when the media's spectacular lack of nuance in all things mental health flabbergasts me. I tweeted:

"This kind of sweeping feel-good headline is problematic. 'Indian youth' is not just a tiny urban bubble, and 'stigma is now passé' is a vast overstatement. Also, removing stigma is not in the control of any one group [the youth in this case]. The danger of such narratives is that they make it seem it is."

Anti-stigma campaigns suck away oxygen from the fight against discrimination

For decades, the fight against stigma has been the glue uniting disparate stakeholders in the mental health movement – from persons with lived experience to caregivers to mental health professionals and policymakers. It is the raison d'être of the mental health ecosystem's annual gala: World Mental Health Day on October 10. Of course mental health is not alone in centralising stigma; it has been the leitmotif in multiple public health campaigns, including those related to HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis, and leprosy. And to be fair, this explicit push to tackle stigma has helped make traditionally taboo conversations somewhat mainstream.

But like all good things that become rancid if they are not discarded on time, our preoccupation with stigma has run its course and is now a danger to the larger mental health movement.

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