Understanding Stigma

Stigma is the manifestation of popular prejudices that ends up disadvantaging and excluding individuals or groups. This social exclusion is based on negative attitudes regarding someone's race or ethnicity, gender, health, mental health, or other perceived or real attributes.

Stigmatized individuals confront unjust barriers to political, social, and economic activities and services. 

While a broad array of people confront discrimination on a daily basis, individuals with mental illnesses face particularly powerful stigma. Research indicates, for example, that stigma is more pronounced in cases of mental than physical illness. In general, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be blamed for their health problems than those with physical illnesses. 

Unfortunately, sometimes stigmatized individuals adopt popular prejudices themselves, a process known as self-stigma. As a result, they may experience a loss of confidence or self-esteem that exacerbates their mental health challenges.

The fear of being stigmatized discourages students with mental illnesses from disclosing their health problems to the university or seeking effective treatments. Under such conditions, their academic performance suffers. For more information, see the resources for educators on COU's Accessible Campus website.

In this section, we will take a look at two groups of students that may experience stigma: students who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Two-Spirit, and Queer (LGBTTQ) and students with disabilities.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Two-Spirit, and Queer Students Who Experience Stigma

Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirit, or queer (LGBTQ) may face mental health challenges as a result of stigmatization. While rights activists in the last few decades have achieved important changes to official policies, stigma remains a significant barrier for same-sex couples, and some health care providers pathologize transgenderism as “gender dysphoria." This discrimination has proven very harmful; people who are LGBTQ have a higher rate of depression and anxiety, and are more likely to be victims of harassment and assault than the general population. A recent Canadian study estimates that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are 14 times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. A U.S. study found that 10 percent of LGBT youth met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 15 percent met the criteria for major depressive disorders. Trans people face particularly severe discrimination, sometimes with dire consequences. A recent study in Ontario found that 45 percent of trans people had attempted suicide and 77 percent had seriously considered it.

You can contribute to the positive mental health of LGBTQ students by working to reduce the stigma associated with their sexual orientations and gender identities. For instance, by using gender-neutral language as often as possible, you can avoid alienating individuals who do not fit in stated categories. Never assume that you know a student's sexual orientation or gender identity; always use inclusive language.

It is important to pay close attention to the “climate" of your campus. Explicit and implicit discrimination may negatively influence a student's desire to participate in activites. By demanding that all students behave professionally, encouraging them to accept everyone's intellectual value, and calling on everyone to participate, you can build positive and inclusive environment. Even a simple positive space or rainbow sticker displayed on an office window or bulletin board can help a student feel more welcome and comfortable.

Ultimately, you should react to the signs of mental illness in LGBTQ students just as you would with any other student. Being aware and educated about the range of potential student identities will promote the open, tolerant, and academically supportive environment necessary for everyone to thrive.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities may face stigma based on their disability. The term “disability" is applied to a wide range of sensory, cognitive, physical, psychological, and medical conditions. Most disabilities are not visible; for instance, you cannot identify mental illnesses or learning disabilities just by looking at their students. It is important to avoid making assumptions about any student's capacities or intellect. Students with disabilities are admitted to university programs using the same rigorous admissions standards applied to everyone else. While making reasonable accommodations to ensure equal access for these students, universities are also expected to maintain the same academic standards for all students.

The Ontario Human Rights Code requires universities to “accommodate the needs of students with disabilities, unless to do so would cause undue hardship." Requests for accommodations are made on an individual basis by students through the university's accessibility office and require medical and/or formal documentation.

This documentation must provide both a diagnosis and information about the impact of the disability on the student's academic functioning (referred to as the “functional impairment" that results from the disability).

In addition, under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), universities must take steps to proactively remove barriers to accessibility for persons with disabilities. For example, the institution must provide university faculty and staff with training on accessibility for persons with disabilities and how it relates to the development and delivery of programs and courses. Universities must also maintain records of dates on which this training was provided and the number of people that participated.

Universities must be aware of their students' legal rights to accommodations and cognizant of their own responsibilities to help the university comply with the law. In the university classroom, students may be concerned that instructors will view accommodations as an advantage, rather than as a method of providing an equal opportunity for students with disabilities without modifying in any way the academic standards of the course or program.

This issue is described in the following commentary from the Ontario Human Rights Commission:

An appropriate accommodation at the post-secondary level would enable a student to successfully meet the essential requirements of the programme, with no alteration in standards or outcomes, although the manner in which the student demonstrates mastery, knowledge and skills may be altered. In this way, education providers are able to provide all students with equal opportunities to enjoy the same level of benefits and privileges and meet the requirements for acquiring an education without the risk of compromising academic integrity.

Remember that students do not need to disclose specific information about their disabilities to anyone. Unless a student chooses to disclose the nature of her/his disability, you will only receive information identifying the accommodations the student is entitled to receive. It is important to familiarize yourself with the accommodation, as well as your university's accessibility resources and protocols, to ensure that you are following recommended practices. Your institution's disability/accessibility services office is an excellent resource, which can answer any questions you might have about accommodating students with disabilities.

Next Up: Recovery from Mental Illness