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A Brief History of Stigma

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

A Brief History of Stigma: Looking for Ways to Move Beyond Mental Illness Stigma is the latest book from Ashley L. Peterson.

You can find it on:

A Brief History of Stigma

About A Brief History of Stigma

Stigma can have a huge impact on the lives of people living with mental illness. That needs to change, but how can we make it happen? A Brief History of Stigma explores the past and present of stigma to give a solid basis to examine strategies to reduce stigma and critically evaluate their effectiveness. It also incorporates the author’s experiences as a former mental health nurse living with a chronic mental illness.

The book is divided into three parts.

Part I: The Nature of the Beast: These chapters explore what stigma is, along with relevant sociological theory. Common stereotypes that are part of mental illness stigma are discussed, including the stereotyped link to violence.

Part II: Stigma in Context: This section covers different areas where the effects of public stigma and structural stigma can be seen. Specific contexts that are explored include employment, housing, health care, and law enforcement.

Part III: What Can We Do About It?: Parts I and II set the stage for section III, which explores stigma reduction strategies and their effectiveness. You’ll likely be surprised to learn how ineffective certain commonly used strategies are when it comes to changing public attitudes. Chapters are devoted to the role of language, strategies to address structural stigma, including stigma in health care, and ways that we can respond as individuals who experience stigma.

This book is for anyone who’s interested in understanding stigma and making the world a better place for people with mental illness. Together, we can create positive change!

Published by Mental Health @ Home Books.

For ideas for further reading, you can view the book’s selected bibliography here.

Chapter List

Part I: The Nature of the Beast

  • 1) What Is Stigma?
  • 2) Violence Stereotypes
  • 3) Stigma Masquerades
  • 4) Suicide Stigma
  • 5) Historical Maltreatment of the Mentally Ill

Part II: Stigma in Context

  • 6) Sociocultural Context
  • 7) Structural Stigma
  • 8) Health Care
  • 9) Health Professionals Experiencing Mental Illness
  • 10) Law Enforcement & the Justice System

Part III: What Can We Do About It?

  • 11) Challenges to Address Stigma
  • 12) How Much Does Language Matter?
  • 13) Individual Responses to Stigma
  • 14) Addressing Structural & Health Care Stigma


Readers’ Responses to A Brief History of Stigma

A Brief History of Stigma on Goodreads: 5 stars
Goodreads, June 22/22

Stigma is powerful, and humans have been telling stories about mental illness since life began. Stigmatized social distancing is an old concept that can cause further degradation of ones’ mental health through lack of empathetic connection. The bias for psychological safety drives decisions by many to exclude those living with a mental illness from their lives in a meaningful way even when documented evidence is available that safety is not statistically in jeopardy.

A Brief History of Stigma is filled with wisdom about “cultural truths” that we are raised with and the link to how they diminish healing outcomes. Leaving behind ideas of less than and left alone to wither in an institution, we acknowledge the past as a pathway that we can step aside of to co-create a bridge to cross together filled with the spirit of individuality. Hope for the future comes from Ashley’s pioneering work to educate us and call us to change the system, values and language with advocacy and vocalization of our stories. A Brief History of Stigma is a comprehensive, well researched and documented overview of the challenges of changing the status quo regarding mental health.

Stephanie Schlosser, Author, Braving Bipolar 

I read a lot, and I’ve actually never seen a book that goes this in depth into the nuances of mental health stigma, so I definitely really enjoyed it.

… I appreciate that the author is not afraid to call out the bullshit as it applies to claims by gun rights advocates about who should be selectively excluded from being able to have a firearm and stuff like that, because isolating a certain category of people based on mental health history is very narrow in scope and it really like the author says it really hasn’t done such a great job so far.

… I love Ashley Peterson’s writings and work related to toxic positivity.

… This is a really great book. It’s a great resource and it does a great job of breaking down the nuance of mental health stigma, so I definitely highly recommend [it].

These excerpts come from a review on the podcast Perfectly Imperfect by Johnzelle Anderson LPC of Panoramic Counseling – you can listen on AnchorFM to Part 1 and Part 2.

Ashley is such a brilliant writer! She understands mental illness firsthand and she has a wealth of experience working in the mental health field. “A Brief History of Stigma” is a unique work; there is no other book quite like it. Not only does Peterson provides a comprehensive (yet not overwhelming) analysis of stigma, she explains how our society can reduce stigma. “A Brief History of Stigma” is a profoundly helpful read for all those affected by mental illness, whether they have a mood disorder or care about someone who does.

Dyane Harwood, Author, Birth of A New Brain (posted on Goodreads)

Stigma Reduction Toolkit

The stigma reduction kit includes modules in PDF format that have information and tools to help you challenge stigma, including all of the resources that are mentioned in A Brief History of Stigma.

The Stigma Fact Sheet provides an overview of what stigma is, including stereotypes, prejudiced attitudes, and discriminatory behaviours.

The stigma reduction strategies module gives an overview of common anti-stigma strategies, while the raise your voice module provides resources to help you share your story to challenge stigma.

Identity mapping

While stigma and self-stigma can make the mentally ill identity appear to be the most prominent one, there’s so much more than that to each of us. Being grounded in identities associated with multiple roles we play can be helpful in deflecting stigma directed at that mentally ill identity.

This identity map exercise guides you in exploring different aspects of your identity, and this topic is addressed further in the blog post I Am Mentally Ill, and I Am Also… So Many Other Things.

Media advocacy

By framing stories related to mental illness in a stigmatizing way, the media can perpetuate stereotypes. However, there are guidelines available to support the media in more responsible reporting, such as these:

If you want to try to make a difference in how the media reports on mental health issues, the Berkeley Media Studies Group has a great resource called Getting Started with Media Advocacy. You can find more resources in the media advocacy module.

Peer support

Connecting with peers can help to reduce self-stigma and make it easier to manage public stigma. There’s more on this in the peer support module and the blog post The Benefits of Peer Support for Mental Illness.

Political advocacy

Politics can be infuriating, but political advocacy is an important part of challenging structural stigma. You can get involved with the advocacy work of mental health non-profit organizations, or you can contact your local elected officials. There are a lot of us with mental illness, and that’s a lot of voting power.

You’ll find resources for this in the political advocacy module and the blog post Political Advocacy to Challenge Mental Illness Stigma.

Post-secondary student mental health advocacy

Students with psychiatric disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations/adjustments, just like any other student with a disability. However, stigma can be a barrier to actually accessing these. Knowing your rights puts you in a better position to advocate for yourself.

You can also get involved with non-profit organizations that are active in trying to reduce stigma on campuses, including the British organization Student Minds, the Canadian organization Jack.org, and the American organizations Active Minds, the JED Foundation, and NAMI.

You can find the post-secondary student mental health advocacy module here.

Workplace mental health

Despite the stigma, supporting employee mental health is actually good for organizations, and there are lots of resources available to help them do that. You can find them in the workplace mental health advocacy module.

There’s more on stigma on the Stop the Stigma page and these blog posts that are based on topics covered in A Brief History of Stigma:

For a brief overview of key concepts related to stigma, there’s a Slideshare presentation Understanding Mental Illness Stigma.

About Ashley L. Peterson

Ashley L. Peterson, author and creator of Mental Health @ Home

I began my career in health care as a pharmacist in 2002, but I quickly returned to school to get a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. During my 15-year nursing career, I specialized in the field of mental health, working primarily with people with serious and persistent mental illness in both hospital and community settings.

Two years into my nursing career, I was hospitalized and diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Since then, I’ve been passionate about sharing my own experiences to challenge stigma and generate open conversations about mental health and illness.

For my Master of Psychiatric Nursing thesis work, I used a research method called autoethnography to situate my own experiences with mental illness within the context of nursing culture, addressing issues like stigma. I published several papers in peer-reviewed nursing journals based on this work.

Since illness-related disability has brought my nursing career to a close, I’ve shifted my focus to writing and advocacy efforts online.