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Psychiatric stigma follows you everywhere you go for the rest of your life...
A Cinematic History of 20th Century Stigma...
STIGMA - What psychology says
S - Shhh! We don't talk about it.
T - Terrified for him, at first.
I - Ignorant, at first.
G - Gather information - this became her mission.
M - Mad that it happened to her son, that no one understood, that no one talks about it.
A - Attitude. She needed attitude, confidence, to address this.

A mother wrote the above as she reflected on her and her son's experience with schizophrenia. We think this applies just as much to sexual minorities, including gay youth who are attracted to younger boys.

Stigma is society's labeling and viewing of certain people as deviant, unnatural, and intolerable. It involves societal perceptions of the stigmatized individuals as defective, unhappy, lacking family connections, and incapable of maintaining relationships with others. Stigmatized people typically face societal attitudes such as hatred, fear, prejudice, and/or pity, and resulting discrimination, harassment, and verbal or physical abuse.

Stigmatized individuals often feel rejected and ostracized. Those with invisible stigma realize they must carefully monitor all interactions with others, and they develop a sense that their relationships are based on a lie that could be exposed at any time. The stress of hiding one's identity can be extreme; even casual conversations must be monitored and screened. Fear of discovery restricts relationships and inhibits closeness with others. Hiding identities and feelings can result in isolation, a lack of role models and sources of support, and depression.

Stigmatized youth often internalize society's stereotypes, prejudices, and fears, and suffer from self-hate, low self-esteem, and depression. This increases their risk for harmful behavior such as irresponsible sexual activity or substance abuse as a way of coping. Self-hate also interferes with self-acceptance and identity integration, and essential developmental task of adolescence. Stigma also makes self-disclosure to others difficult or impossible, resulting in inadequate relationships and impaired social development.

Feelings of rejection by parents, particularly if their sexuality has become known, may lead them to run away or be forced out of their home by their parents. They may end up in criminal justice system or in foster care/social services, where they are at risk for further rejection.

Some experience school or job failure. Lack of acceptance and school failure can result in limited career possibilities, abandoned educational or career goals, and limited life choices. Stigma often prevents them from imagining satisfying, productive lives, and causes them to forgo meaningful careers and close relationships.

Common psychological consequences of stigma include impaired psychosocial development, family alienation, inadequate interpersonal relationships, victimization at school (verbal, physical, threats), and intense psychological distress, especially for doubly or triply stigmatized people. Stigmatized youth often face significant developmental crises, suffer from depression, and may become suicidal.

Stigmatized youth need a buffer against hostility and humiliation through positive role models, a support system of family, adults, and peers, and community resources. They need to learn ways of coping with stigma by finding support from others, by ending their isolation and withdrawal, and by transforming their stigmatized identity into a positive one. Stigma does not change, but the way one percieves and responds to its dehumanizing effects does.

Many of the health and mental health concerns of youth with minority sexualities are associated with how they are perceived in the social environment. Stigma has a powerful impact on self-perception, behavior, and health outcomes. However, the negative effects of stigma can me mediated by sensitive, informed, and nonjudgmental assistance. This does not require special skills or extensive training, but rather awareness that not all youth are straight, sensitivity in talking with them, and understanding the stressors in their lives.

This information comes from the work of Goffman and Allport who have extensively studied stigmatized groups. Adapted from Caitlin Ryan & Donna Futterman, Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care & Counseling, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

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