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  • Dr Aakash

Stigma- free zone in universities- The need for a safe space

A few years ago, my best friend told me he was suffering from Major Depressive Disorder. I knew something was going on with him because he was not being his usual self lately. He told me he did not want anybody else to know about it because he was scared they might not understand him or they might start to treat him differently. I was shocked because if we, as medical students, are scared to let our close ones know when we are suffering from a mental health disorder, how hard must it be for a common man to open up about their mental health struggles?

Where does this fear stem from? It stems from our negative beliefs about people suffering from mental health disorders, and this is called "stigma”.

What is stigma?

As per the American Psychological Association, stigma is “the negative social attitude attached to a characteristic of an individual that may be regarded as a mental, physical, or social deficiency”. They also say it leads to unfair exclusion and discrimination against the individual.

Is stigma always about mental health illness? No, as the above definition states, it can be attached to a mental, physical, or social characteristic of an individual that is perceived as a "deficiency".

It can be a mental health illness, stigma against differently-abled people, stigma against LGBTQ+ individuals, lower caste people, poor people, etc. There are several examples, but these are the most common, especially in a college or university setting.

What are the types of stigma?

There are three main types of stigma: Let’s take the example of the disorder schizophrenia to understand the various types of stigma.

● The stigma that is waged against the individual suffering from schizophrenia is called "Public stigma".

● "Courtesy stigma" or "Stigma by association" is when the stigma is directed against people who are close to or involved with the person suffering from schizophrenia.

● Self-stigma, also called “Internalized stigma”, is another type where negative behaviors are exhibited by the individual suffering from the disease towards themselves.

Consequences of Stigmatization in Universities

It is proven by research that when students aren’t given a safe zone where they can freely express themselves and are stigmatized, it can profoundly bring down their performance, not only academically but also socially by lowering their self-esteem. In extreme cases, it can affect their mental health as well. Their friends can also be affected via courtesy stigma, and the overall campus climate is greatly affected.

There are several reports of individuals taking their own lives because of the stigma and harassment they faced on campus, and it’s a warning tale for universities across the globe to ensure a stigma-free zone on campus.

Strategies for creating a stigma-free zone in universities

To create a safe environment for students to prosper, it is important for universities to address the issue of stigmatization and come up with solutions for it.

What steps can universities take to create a stigma-free environment? So

● Education is a powerful tool. Educating students on the topic of stigma and its evils would definitely make them aware of the issues and change them for the better.

● Spreading awareness about judgmental behaviors, some of which may be unintentional

● Creating a stigma-free task force to address issues specific to stigma related incidents

● Organizing interactive sessions where students discuss their stories of stigmatization and how they overcame it would encourage other students to fight back against stigma and not be bullied into silence.

Creating an inclusive campus culture that promotes acceptance and understanding among its students is of utmost importance. Universities must focus on the development of policies and practices that promote inclusivity and acceptance. This would create a culture of respect and empathy on campus, which is essential for creating a stigma-free zone.

Providing counseling services and creating support groups on campus is key because most stigma-related incidents can affect an individual mentally.

To truly create a stigma-free zone, universities must make a concerted effort to address the root causes of exclusion and marginalization. This requires an understanding of the complex social, historical, and cultural factors that contribute to these phenomena. For instance, students from historically marginalized communities may face discrimination based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability status. Addressing these issues requires a willingness to engage in difficult, uncomfortable conversations, and to acknowledge the ways in which students from different backgrounds experience the university environment.

Universities have long been regarded as places for academic and personal growth, where individuals can explore various fields of study and develop new skills. Creating a stigma-free zone in universities requires sustained efforts, including adopting policies and practices that support inclusion and the development of safe spaces where students can be themselves without worrying about having a negative experience. A campus that’s free of bullying and harassment is a campus where young minds thrive.

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