Lecture – Enduring Stigma – Historical Perspectives on Disease Meanings and Their Impact

Available with English captions.

Presented by Allan M. Brandt, PhD, Harvard University – Visiting Scholar Series lecture

Throughout history, the word “stigma” has been used to express disgrace and infamy. The term was initially used to describe religious matters, but over the years stigma has come to be associated with certain medical conditions. Stigma connected to certain cancers, sexually transmitted diseases, addiction, other mental illnesses, and more has produced psychological and physical issues for individuals, as well as problems for health systems and society at large.

According to Brandt, stigma is “an enormous problem for patients and for populations, here and around the world.” Condition-related stigma creates enormous obstacles for individuals seeking effective health care. And the isolation, stereotyping, and depression caused by stigma also has a tremendous economic impact on systems and communities.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • The history of stigma related to health conditions
  • The impact of stigma on individuals with various physical and mental health conditions
  • Strategies for destigmatization

During this lecture, Brandt examines the many impacts of stigma. He explores the biosocial harms, as well as stigma’s effects on economics, health disparities, and individual mental health.

For example, he explains that, as recent as the 1970s, many individuals with breast cancer and lung cancer kept their conditions hidden to avoid judgment and stigma.

In the 1980s, he reports, the public, government agencies, and health systems reacted to the HIV/AIDS crisis by stigmatizing individuals who had contracted the condition. Brandt calls the early days of the HIV epidemic “a crushing moment of fear, anxiety, and social reaction” that led to prejudice, discrimination, and calls for quarantine and detention. This type of stigma, he says, has also affected the recent opioid crisis.

Brandt asserts that we can learn from these past experiences and that “destigmatization” is possible. Steps for destigmatization include changing the language used to describe certain conditions. He also calls for changes in clinical culture, including emphasizing that these conditions can be addressed with medical treatment.

Brandt also says that increased education and awareness can reduce stigma. As individuals publicly disclose their conditions and as activists fight to change perceptions and policies around stigmatized conditions, progress can be made.