The history of any stigmatised illness is relevant to understanding the origins of many of the misconceptions and myths that continue in many societies today (Efforts to dispel stigma surrounding mental illness, Nov 7; Mental illness is real and serious, Nov 4).
These misconceptions can perpetuate stigma and can lead to a host of issues including social isolation, delays in seeking treatment and care, and unemployment, especially for people with epilepsy.
Identifying and dispelling the misconceptions behind stigma is a first step to reducing it.
The prevalence and consequences of the stigma reinforce the need for a public health system response that recognises the burden of the stigmatised illness on the individual, the family, healthcare providers, the community and the economy.
Stigma, whether felt or enacted, is a significant contributor to poor, mental and social health, lower educational and employment opportunities in people with epilepsy, and will not be improved with a single approach.
A multi-pronged strategy that includes interventions for the person with epilepsy and his family, teachers, employers, heath and social services, media, community and policymakers is needed.
In many societies, misconceptions about epilepsy still exist, leading to varying degrees of stigmatisation, and sometimes overt discrimination. The multiple ways in which stigma can be experienced contribute to the burden of epilepsy.
Unfortunately, epilepsy is often depicted as a sudden onset of a seizure in an exaggerated, violent, frightening and dangerous way, creating stereotypes that are erroneous and harmful.
Derogatory language and negative depictions hurt people with epilepsy and perpetuate stigma.
Knowledge about epilepsy plays an important role in reducing the degree of discrimination and negative attitudes towards people with epilepsy.
The magnitude of the negative attitudes seems to be aggravated by the presence of misconceptions about epilepsy as a form of insanity, being untreatable, contagious, hereditary, or a form of learning disability.
It is time to highlight epilepsy as a public health imperative to reduce its burden, and improve public attitudes, reduce stigma and promote protection of the rights of people with epilepsy in Singapore.
Goh Keng Hwee
Epilepsy Care Group Singapore