Managing Stigma Effectively: What Social Psychology and Social Neuroscience Can Teach Us (2015)

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve internalised a lot of things that impede my recovery and add to the continuing burden of my illness. It’s good to see an article addressing stigma:

Managing Stigma Effectively: What Social Psychology and Social Neuroscience Can Teach Us

Psychiatric education is confronted with three barriers to managing stigma associated with mental health treatment. First, there are limited evidence-based practices for stigma reduction, and interventions to deal with stigma against mental health care providers are especially lacking. Second, there is a scarcity of training models for mental health professionals on how to reduce stigma in clinical services. Third, there is a lack of conceptual models for neuroscience approaches to stigma reduction, which are a requirement for high-tier competency in the ACGME Milestones for Psychiatry. The George Washington University (GWU) psychiatry residency program has developed an eight-week course on managing stigma that is based on social psychology and social neuroscience research. The course draws upon social neuroscience research demonstrating that stigma is a normal function of normal brains resulting from evolutionary processes in human group behavior. Based on these processes, stigma can be categorized according to different threats that include peril stigma, disruption stigma, empathy fatigue, moral stigma, and courtesy stigma. Grounded in social neuroscience mechanisms, residents are taught to develop interventions to manage stigma. Case examples illustrate application to common clinical challenges: (1) helping patients anticipate and manage stigma encountered in the family, community, or workplace; (2) ameliorating internalized stigma among patients; (3) conducting effective treatment from a stigmatized position due to prejudice from medical colleagues or patients’ family members; and (4) facilitating patient treatment plans when stigma precludes engagement with mental health professionals. This curriculum addresses the need for educating trainees to manage stigma in clinical settings. Future studies are needed to evaluate changes in clinical practices and patient outcomes as a result of social neuroscience-based training on managing stigma.

Particularly interesting is the following passage:

“The most difficult of all stigmatizing processes to counter is perhaps internalized stigma. Internalized stigma results when stigma of whatever specific type becomes a lens for self-perception that is judgmental, contemptuous, and dismissive. Patients feel disgust for their identity as psychiatrically ill. Compassion for self is difficult to muster. Loss of self-esteem, a sense of alienation, social withdrawal, and self-hatred are common sequelae.

During categorical social cognition, the sociobiological systems stream information about the social world through the rostral anterior cingulate gyrus where it can be compared to a model of expectable reality that has been constructed by the prefrontal cortex from memory retrieval. Detecting a mark of stigma in a person’s environment appears to generate conflict between incoming sociobiological information and an expectable reality. When the anterior cingulate gyrus detects this conflict, a need for additional control is signaled to the prefrontal cortex. The dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices then resolve the conflict by exercising top-down modulation over subcortical systems that constitute the pain matrix, including the amygdala (fear), insula (disgust), and ventral anterior cingulate gyrus (suffering). Activation of the pain matrix produces proximate motivation for avoiding or extruding the bearer of the stigmatizing mark. The flow of mirror neuron information is then suppressed, and person-to-person social cognition fails to activate. Empathy for the stigmatized person is suspended. The stigmatized person is then behaviorally extruded and oppressed, for which the stigmatizer typically feels no guilt.

Different types of stigma can recruit different brain circuits and signaling pathways. Moral stigma, for examples, activates circuitry of ventromedial prefrontal cortex that is essential for generating social disgust. Patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lose their aversion to intimate contact with strangers, social deviants, or those bearing misfortunes, such as the poor or homeless, whereas their moral disgust remained intact for those who violated the dignity of others, as with unfairness, cheating, or betrayal.”

One can imagine the intrapsychic conflicts and corresponding neurobiological chaos that internalised stigma could lead to… Could that play a role in auditory verbal hallucinations?

Therapeutic strategies are detailed:

“Role plays are used to practice psychotherapeutic strategies for recovery from internalized stigma by discovering aspects of oneself that are unsullied, intact, and worthy, while mobilizing defiance of the stigmatizing inner gaze. In manageable steps, patients practice steps of recovery”

For a view on the importance of social aspects in the recovery process, this talk is worth a watch.

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