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June 01, 2018 Friday 12:10:33 PM IST


Cover Story

That terrible ‘S’ word! There is no denying its insinuating presence in everyday life. No project of modernity seems to have made a breakthrough in de-stigmatising stigma. What is Stigma? Dr. Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, an Associate Professor at the Department of Psychological Science, Eastern Connecticut State University, has this to say: “Stigma is defined as a perceived negative attribute that causes someone to devalue or think less of the whole person.” Somewhere, someplace, sometime we have experienced or might experience this situation. Dr. Kristalyn says that the so-called mentally ‘unfit’ people continue to face tangible and intangible stigma.


The corollary is, is it necessary to diagnose whether we are mentally healthy or not?


Competition does strange things to the human spirit. So, children are the most vulnerable when it comes to the stigma of comparison. It starts early on in childhood when adults plant it in their minds that, in turn, grows with the child deep within, nurtured unconsciously by the child herself. When the children reach adolescence, adults put the blame at their door when they find them ‘wanting’. Chiding is not the solution. The child needs support to face those situations and informed adults need to inspire them to recover from the damage such stigmatising or branding inflicts on them.




I was in my second year of college when I was gifted with what is called Multiple Sclerosis or MS. The physical infirmity it led me to was my first brush with stigma. What does MS do? The disease affects demyelination of brain and spinal nerves, which causes disruption of communication between the brain and other parts of the body.


I then felt that I was at a dead end. As I began researching the condition, I also became aware that there was no permanent cure that I could look forward to.


In fact, doctors are yet to find a permanent remedy. What the only medicine that is available does is, to suppress the immune system, slow down the progression of the disease, and lengthen the gaps between relapses.


I saw a black veil between me and my dreams, aspirations, and ambitions. The most pronounced symptom was a certain form of walking disability, where my right leg would suddenly stop midway or midstride without giving me any signal or warning.


The doctors advised me not to give any strain or stress to the brain, for it could affect my body quite badly, which, in turn, could force me to stop my studies during medication. The moment I heard this, I became desperate and was in a dilemma.


When I started medication, I began to lose body weight and I would become increasingly exhausted. What was worse was the rise of a hidden barricade that interfered with my interests and routine. Due to the side effects of the medicines, I had to take leave for two months from college. I thought it was the end of my dreams and that there was nothing more to my life. My behaviour changed and I became introverted. I withdrew from my friends and even stopped reading.


It took me months to take a hard look at my condition with the help of my family, especially my mother, who played a stellar role in my life. She always tried to revitalise my thoughts and actions, encouraging me not to let go of habits I had nurtured over the years.


When I was hospitalised and got to see the condition of my fellow inmates, my thoughts changed and I realised I was in a comparatively better position than them. There was somebody who couldn’t even rise without help, there was another who would suffer from protein loss during urination, and so on. I met a lot of people of different ages, from different social, economic, and educational status, all suffering from different diseases, but with one common wish — to survive at any cost. I felt I was blessed because the only hindrance I faced then was my inability to walk, nothing more.




I regained my confidence. The first thing I intended to do was to return to college. For this my brother encouraged me to join a yoga centre, which I did.


Yoga gave me a new life. There are hidden techniques in yoga that help us control our mind and body. I experienced it in my life.


Today, I can say that stigma is not a mental affliction that can’t be cured. The stigmatised can make a full recovery, for it is the lack of self-esteem and confidence that prolongs the agony.


The most important solution for stigma is unstinting support to the stigmatised from the family and the community as a whole. The family needs to draw them out of their shells and engage them creatively in social and group activities. The most essential part is to inspire the person on the basis of their achievements in life and their abilities and talents, in order to keep them away from negative thoughts. However, care should be taken not to pressure them into any activity, which could affect them adversely. Concurrently, the family or caregivers need to help them recover their health through good food and exercise.


All said, the ultimate solution, if you will, is nothing else other than will power. Mind is the most powerful element and the best medicine within our body. The extraordinary power of the human mind is beyond calculation. There is no miracle at hand that can change our lives. We are the best judges of our lives. So, it’s up to us how to use that mysterious power within us.

Linta Varghese

The writer is a practising lawyer at the High Court of Kerala.

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