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COVID-19 Triggers Stigma from Public, Behavioral Health Expert Says

Although no one is immune from the effects of COVID-19, a stigma still surrounds the virus, a behavioral health professional from central Illinois said.

Stigma is discrimination based on fear, lack of knowledge or a need to blame others, explained Amber Olson, director of behavioral therapy services for Memorial Behavioral Health.

“Fear often creates a stigma around an illness and the people who are affected,” Olson said. “Because COVID-19 is so new, and so much about it is unknown, it’s unfortunately created an atmosphere in which people can experience discrimination, harassment or outright hostility.”

Olson said a wide range of people and groups have reported experiencing stigma during the COVID-19 pandemic, including:

  • People of Asian descent and Black or African Americans
  • People who tested positive for COVID-19, have recovered from COVID-19 or were quarantined as a patient under investigation
  • Emergency responders or healthcare providers
  • Frontline workers, such as grocery store clerks or delivery drivers
  • People who have disabilities or developmental or behavioral disorders who may have difficulty following recommendations
  • People who have underlying health conditions that cause a cough
  • People living in congregate settings and homeless shelters

“The effects of stigma can manifest themselves in many ways,” Olson said. “Some people diagnosed with COVID-19, especially early in the pandemic, reported threatening online comments or other forms of harassment.”

COVID-19 patients or patients under investigation can also feel isolated, anxious and depressed, Olson said, making recovery even more stressful.

“At Memorial, we’re actively working to help our patients with COVID-19, as well as others affected by the pandemic, by reducing the stigma,” Olson said. But there are things the public can do to help as well. Here are a few of her suggestions:

  • Speak out when you hear negative comments or misinformation about how the virus spreads, whether in person or online.
  • Don’t refer to the virus in terms of specific ethnicities or nationalities. Remember, everyone is vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Avoid spreading rumors or using language that promotes fear. Focus on facts. Don’t isolate or shame the person. For example, say “COVID-19 spreads” not “she spreads COVID-19.”

If you know someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, stay in touch with that person via phone or email. Let them know they have your love and support.

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