Privilege and Stigma in Health: Revisited

Last year, I wrote a series of posts about the idea of healthy privilege and health stigma. My definitions of these concepts were based on the work of others before me, such as Peggy McIntosh and Kendall Clark. You are welcome to go back to the original posts and read them, but I’ll share the definitions again for you.

health stigma

The feelings of shame, isolation, self-blame and invisibility that many people facing physical or mental illness feel when others make assumptions or judgments about their ability, willpower, character, motivation, or work ethic (to name a few)–Ann Becker-Schutte’s personal & professional experiences

healthy privilege

1. A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by healthy persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities. b. A special advantage or benefit of healthy persons; explained by reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc.
2. A privileged position; the possession of an advantage healthy persons enjoy over persons with illness.
3. The special right or immunity attaching to healthy persons as a social relation; prerogative.

In addition to the formal definition, I would add this:
Healthy people enjoy the privilege of bodies that work in the ways that they expect, free from regular pain or suffering, without extraordinary effort. Healthy privilege allows healthy people to assume that their experience is “normal,” and to be unaware that coping strategies that work for them will not work for someone dealing with illness.

If you’re familiar with the definitions, thanks for your patience in rereading them. I’ve been thinking about this issue again this week. These concepts have been on my mind again because I’m hearing things from my clients, and in the communities where I participate, the remind me that health stigma and healthy privilege still alive and kicking.

I wrote about another aspect of this issue a few weeks back, when I talked about shame and patient blaming in healthcare. And just last night, during a discussion on Twitter, a patient shared this experience:

@MedImprovePro: Cancer still stigmatized. BRCA+, but told by co-worker nurse ‘you wished that on yourself’.

I was floored. Absolutely stunned. How on earth is it possible that we still have people, let alone healthcare providers–who should damn well know better, who believe that cancer is something that we can “wish upon ourselves.” And why on earth would anyone make that choice?

I should know better than this. I hear my clients tell me about the shaming and blaming they face both in and out of doctors’ offices on a regular basis. I hear about the blatant discrimination against folks with all kinds of diagnoses, both physical and brain-based. I know this is out there.

But I believe that we can do better than this. So, if you’re reading this post, I hope you share it. And I hope that, as you share it, you look at one step you can take to educate others about health, health stigma, & healthy privilege. Because it is going to require all of us taking action to build and generate change.

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