By Almas Shamim

We all must have met, known or heard of someone who has a medical condition or a disease but has tried to hide it from others. Communicable diseases like TB, HIV-AIDS, and mental health conditions top the charts for diseases that tend to be hidden the most.

The reason behind a person not willing to share or talk about a disease condition is the stigma associated with these diseases. Stigma means a dishonor that is linked to a circumstance, in this case, having a certain disease. Society tends to look down upon people who have contracted the HIV, since it is common knowledge that HIV is transmitted sexually. Given the low sexual freedom in present day India, people with diseases that could have been acquired sexually are judged to be ‘immoral’ and said to have shamed the family and caste. Add on to this the dimension of gender and we get a world where female HIV patients, even though a lot of them have acquired the virus from their own husbands, are thrown out of their houses and sometimes even whole villages. A similar picture is seen in tuberculosis as well where many women are disowned by their families. Though TB is not a sexually transmitted disease, the fact that it is debilitating and sometimes fatal is sufficient to make the society talk about it in hushed voices.

Mental diseases are so stigmatized that many patients are not even taken to a psychiatrist ever, Especially in places like our own islands, most mental health conditions are attributed to some ‘kala jadoo’ by our neighbor or relative, who wants our family to go crazy because our son score greater marks than their son in the 10th standard board exams. Such explanations for altered behaviour are only too common in our islands. These superstitious beliefs in the supernatural have kept so many people from being diagnosed and treated of real mental health abnormalities. Commonly seen conditions like depression and anxiety disorders which need psychiatric help, also suffer, as a result, since people refuse to consult the doctor in a fear of being labeled as a “pagal”.

For the cure of any disease, along with the Government, the patients are the biggest stakeholders. Following my previous piece on the need for community groups, I requwst that people who have been patients of any disease, but particularly the stigmatized one come forward and share their experiences. The more we normalize a disease, the lesser the stigma which remains around it. Then, we can focus only on the treatment part, without worrying over labels or being disowned.

So, friends, speak up and share your personal stories.

Almas Shamim is a public health specialist with a great interest in sexual and reproductive health and rights, and feminism among Muslim women. She currently works for an international humanitarian aid organization in New Delhi and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.