When I started my ocean warrior journey at age 6, I discovered lots of things about the ocean, marine animals, and pollution. I also learned about people's behaviour and more specifically, their fears along with something called stigma. Although I didn't have the word stigma as part of my vocabulary then, I felt afraid of things that I didn't understand.
I was afraid of sharks.
I spent time on the National Geographic Kids website and one day decided to move to the section where they featured sharks. I was afraid, but something in me decided to read about them. Once I took that step, I learned all about sharks and soon realized that they fascinated me. The more I read, the more I realized that my fear was an uneducated one. It was based on assumptions and misinformation. It was based on what the movies like Jaws wanted to create -- that sharks were monstrous killing machines. This isn't the case. I've included a link to an interview by the author of Jaws book, Peter Benchley.
The ah-ha moment for me to overcome my fear was education. It was the ability to gain an open mind and a different perspective because I was willing to become informed and there were people in the world who inspired me and encouraged me to learn and deepen my understanding. It isn't that stigma doesn't exist, but rather that through education, we can help people eliminate misperceptions and misinformation.
I also believe there are many stigmas in life and some we seem to accept as societal norms, you know, the things that we just accept because people say it is so and share their misperceptions with us. Stigma is negative behaviour or a negative attitude toward something or some person. In my research, I've found stigma about certain marine animals like sharks. I've also seen stigma regarding activism and conservation. For some, it makes them uncomfortable because they feel forced to face a problem that doesn't really affect them -- or at least they don't think it does or will. Some people don't believe that there is climate change or that the ice caps are melting or that animals are becoming extinct because of human mistreatment or apathy.
I've also seen stigma with people issues. People are afraid of certain medical conditions like HIV/AIDS, colon cancer, leprosy and mental illness. In schools, kids deal with physical, mental and cyber bullying. They also deal with gender issues and language barriers, religious differences and learning disabilities. Misperceptions and misinformation exist where stigma thrives. Stigma stifles a kid's willingness to come forward and share their story. Stigma keeps kids suffering in silence.
We can change stigma by knowing what to do and what to say. Whether is involves animals, our planet or the people who inhabit it, we have the ability to make a difference. It starts with education and the willingness to open our mind to new ideas. When we're informed, we build the confidence to listen and to ask how we can help make a positive difference whether it involves picking up garbage, recycling, or actively listening to a friend's story without judgement.
There are steps you can take to help stomp out stigma. (source: mendthemind.ca)
1) Educate yourself. When you know the facts, you're better able to tackle your fear;
2) Be mindful of what you say and the attitudes and behaviour you have toward a topic you fear;
3) Help educate others so that they are better equipped to stomp out fear-based stigma;
4) Focus on what you can do to make something better. Stay hopeful;
5) Be supportive and inclusive. Picture yourself in the situation and imagine how you'd like to be treated.
Every effort, even the smallest is helpful in dealing with stigma. Believe that you can make a difference regardless of whether you see the results of your efforts. Sometimes it comes down to planting seeds for a garden you'll never get to see bloom. If you didn't plant the seeds, there wouldn't be a garden for others to enjoy.
"We never know the worth of water till the well is dry." ~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732