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J Health Soc Behav. 1991 Sep;32(3):302-20.

The effectiveness of stigma coping orientations: can negative consequences of mental illness labeling be avoided?

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  • 1Columbia University, New York State Psychiatric Institute.


Recent research has assigned a prominent role to labeling and stigma as factors that impair the social and psychological functioning of people officially labeled mentally ill. But can the effects of labeling and stigma be overcome by adopting a few simple approaches to coping with these problems? If so, the stigma-induced problems of social awkwardness, demoralization and unemployment emphasized by recent research may not be as severe as claimed. Using a sample of psychiatric patients, we examine this issue by assessing whether patients can ameliorate labeling effects by keeping their history of treatment a secret, educating others about their situation, or avoiding situations in which rejection might occur. None of these coping orientations were effective in diminishing negative labeling effects on unemployment or on psychological distress/demoralization. In fact, the three coping strategies show consistent effects in the direction of producing more harm than good, and with respect to withdrawal-avoidance this effect is significant. Based on these results we argue that stigma is powerfully reinforced by culture and that its effects are not easily overcome by the coping actions of individuals. Using C. Wright Mills's (1967) distinction we conclude that labeling and stigma are "social problems" not "individual troubles."

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