Vitiligo stigma is a type of social stigma that can lead to social isolation, discrimination and lack of self confidence. The everyday stress and stigma associated with vitiligo can have psychological consequences such as depression and negative self image. People with vitiligo (leucoderma) often find a hard time in getting a suitable match for marriage. The stigma attached to vitiligo is more intense in developing countries than the developed world. In developing countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the low level of social awareness about non harmful and non communicable nature of vitiligo creates many problems for people with vitiligo. In some parts of India, people relate vitiligo to religious beliefs and believe that vitiligo is a result of bad karma in the past life. (1) There are many incidences where marriages end up in divorce as one party felt that the other party had cheated them by concealing about vitiligo at the time of marriage.
The vitiligo stigma can force a person to make radical changes in major life decisions such as:
- Education– Many teenagers and young adults drops out of education early or opts for correspondence education as they can’t handle the stress of exposing their vitiligo spots to their peers everyday. (2, 3)
- Clothing– In many cases, people often buy clothes that help them hide the vitiligo spots instead of choosing the ones that they exactly want to wear. For example, people with vitiligo would wear long sleeve tops and full length trousers even in hot summer days.
- Career (job)– People with vitiligo will go for a job that involves less public interaction as they are not comfortable in meeting new people everyday. (3)
- Romance and relationship– Many of the youngsters with vitiligo often remain single as the strong feeling of insecurity doesn’t let them approach someone they like. Their love life remains blank. The white patches on their skin restrict them from getting into a romantic relationship. (4)
- Marriage– People with vitiligo often face repeated rejections during marriage discussions as marrying someone with vitiligo is considered highly risky in countries like India. In medical terms, vitiligo is a non-fatal and non-contagious skin condition with a weak genetic component and in most of the cases, it doesn’t pass on from parents to the kids. Also, it is not spread by having sexual relationship or living together. Hence, marrying someone with vitiligo doesn’t have any serious consequences in the long term. But, why should someone take this risk if they can find a non-vitiligo person? Sounds logical, isn’t it? That’s why many people with vitiligo fear the possibility of not getting a suitable match and hence, their marriages get delayed and they make many compromises in their search for a life-partner.
- Social life– People with vitiligo often don’t socialize much and live a rather reserved life. The unpleasant public stares, their odd questions and sometimes, their discriminatory behavior- you know, it is not easy to digest all this, that too on a daily basis.
The vicious cycle of stress and vitiligo
Stress is a major trigger for vitiligo and in many cases, people develop vitiligo patches on their skin after a stressful event such as death of a loved one, marriage failure (divorce), chronic illness or a serious accident. (7) At the same time, vitiligo itself is a stressful condition to live with. When we complete both these scenarios, it becomes a vicious cycle of stress and vitiligo and people with vitiligo found themselves trapped in it with no way out.
How to overcome the vitiligo stigma
- Accept your skin– With a lifelong issue such as vitiligo, self hatred or guilt is not going to help you. It would actually make the things worse for you. You have not chosen these white spots on your body and hence, their is no reason to feel ashamed for vitiligo. Moreover, vitiligo is quite an innocent skin condition and it is not going to affect the people around you. So, just be yourself, accept your skin and fall in love with yourself. People with vitiligo wants the society to accept them as they are, but, majority of them don’t accept their own skin conditions. In the core of their hearts, they consider vitiligo as an enemy. Well, this is not going to work! You can’t expect society to treat you as normal if you yourself hate these white spots.
- Join a support group– Join a vitiligo (leucoderma) support group. It can be either online (Facebook or Whatsapp groups) or a physical support group in your town. Meeting people with similar life experiences can have a wonderful emotional healing effect. They can relate to you daily life struggles and can provide you the much needed emotional support. It would eventually help you embrace your skin condition and develop self love.
- Discuss with your family and friends– It is known as talk therapy. Discuss with your family members and close friends that how you feel about vitiligo and how it is affecting your daily life. Believe me, it would be a very liberating experience for you and you would feel freedom from the unnecessary baggage of vitiligo stigma.
- Try the stress busters– Stress buster techniques like Yoga, meditation, prayers, running, jogging, gym workout, cycling, swimming etc can help you relieve stress and come in terms with the fact that vitiligo is going to stay with you for the rest of your life.
- Stay away from smoking and alcohol– To cope with the stress and stigma, many people rely on addictions like alcohol and smoking (tobacco). Well, this is a dangerous strategy. Smoking is one of the bigger trigger for autoimmune skin problems and same is true for excessive consumption of alcohol. (5, 6) Also, these addictions may provide some temporary sedative effect, but, in the long term, they aggravate stress symptoms. So, cut down on smoking and alcohol
To sum up, accept vitiligo as very part of you. It is just a harmless, non communicable skin condition that doesn’t stop you from fulfilling all your personal and professional goals.