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Is low self-esteem an inevitable consequence of stigma? An example from women with chronic mental health problems

By D. L. Camp, W. M. L. Finlay and E. Lyons


It is often assumed that membership in a stigmatized group has negative consequences for the self-concept. However, this relationship is neither straightforward nor inevitable, and there is evidence suggesting that negative consequences may not necessarily occur (Psychol. Rev. 96(4) (1989) 608). This paper argues that the relationship has not been sufficiently theorized, and that a more detailed analysis is called for in order to understand the relationship between stigma and the self. The paper presents a critical examination of modified labeling theory (Am. Sociol. Rev. 52 (1987) 96), with examples from a study examining perceptions of stigma and their relationship to self-evaluation in women with chronic mental health problems. Open-ended interviews and qualitative analyses were used in preference to global measures of self-esteem. It was found that although the women were aware of society's unfavorable representations of mental illness, and the effects this had on their lives, they did not accept these representations as valid and therefore rejected them as applicable to the self. The participants did not deny their mental health problems, but their acceptance of labels was critical and pragmatic. Labels were rejected when they were perceived as carrying an unrealistic and negative stereotype, or when the women felt that their symptoms did not fit with the diagnostic criteria. The research illustrates the importance of considering people's subjective understandings of stigmatized conditions and societal reactions in order to understand the relation between stigma and the self.UK Stigma Identity Mental illness Self-esteem Modified labeling theory

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