Stigmatising illness sparks depression


THAT'S MEN:There’s more to being ill than the illness itself, writes PADRAIG O MORAIN

WHEN I was in my late teens a man called Phil Hanrahan ran a cafe with his wife in Naas. He was fond of talking, especially about GAA, and had accumulated a great deal of wisdom in his lifetime. He was also a good listener so I, who was shy of speaking to anybody, spent many hours propped up against his counter, settling the world.

I must have been a nuisance but he was always patient and made time for me. Then one day I heard he was in Naas hospital after being diagnosed with cancer. I never visited him in hospital and I never called into his cafe again to talk to him. Why? Because the word “cancer” terrified me and also, I suspect, because I was terrified of death.

This explains why I did not see him again but it does not justify my behaviour. Today, whenever I pass by the building on the Main Street where Hanrahans used to be, I feel a dart of guilt, and so I should.

I was reminded of this when I read that US researchers have found that the stigma attached to lung cancer puts people with the disease at an elevated risk of depression. Various studies have found that 20-45 per cent of people with lung cancer suffer depression.

That, you may think, is hardly surprising in itself given that this is one of the scarier forms of cancer. But the rate of depression rises with the feeling of stigma: the greater the stigma, the greater the risk.

Back when I was in my late teens, cancer had a stigma all its own. The very word was truly frightening and I was probably not the only person who stayed away from a relative, friend or acquaintance with cancer.

Today, the stigma is more likely to be connected with disapproval of the principal way in which people get lung cancer: through smoking.

In the US study, persons with lung cancer felt that family, friends and loved ones blamed them for their condition. This, in many cases, led to a sense of shame on their part which, in turn, led to depression.

What was striking, though, was that people with lung cancer who had never smoked also felt stigmatised. Rightly or wrongly, they felt other people were blaming them for their condition, thereby putting them at a higher risk of depression.

Patients with depression, the study found, were more likely to avoid dealing with their health problems and got less support from others.

Actually, the stigmatising of illness is common. Think of the stigma surrounding HIV and Aids, or how we are busily stigmatising obesity. I suspect rates of depression are high among people with HIV or with obesity-related illnesses. And mental ill health continues to be stigmatised so that relatively few people will admit to being affected.

So there is more to being ill than just having the illness itself. The stigma that goes with it could make matters fatally worse.

For more on the research go to

Addendum: Are you shy and easily embarrassed in public? if so, things may be brighter than you think. Research reported in the Psychologist suggests that most of us see easily embarrassed people as more acceptable than their brasher colleagues.

In an experiment, people who reacted shyly to being praised were more popular with observers than were those who displayed pride at being complimented. The researchers speculate that the shy ones were regarded as more likely to be fair and to care about others, so people wanted to work with them.

I still spend a fair bit of time hanging around on the fringes in social situations so I was pleased to see this endorsement of us shy people.

The lesson? Blush and be embarrassed as much as you like so long as you remember other people might like you better for it. If anybody is put off by your shyness, there’s a very good chance indeed that the someone is you.

Padraig O Morain ( is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind, Mindfulness in Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.