Labeling Chronic Illnesses: The Adverse Effect of Perceived Stigma on Depressive Symptoms





Paper Type

Master's Thesis


College of Arts and Sciences

Degree Name

Master of Arts in General Psychology (MAGP)




The overall objective of this study was to investigate stigma and depression among patients with unexplained chronic symptoms of illness (i.e., functional somatic syndromes and medically unexplained symptoms) as well as chronic symptomatology from medical diseases of known biomedical pathology. This quasi-experimental study included 273 participants who reported experiencing physical symptoms for a minimum of three months. Participants were recruited via in-clinic and online postings to complete the web survey. Responses from participants in each of the three illness categories (i.e., conventional disease, functional somatic syndromes, and medically unexplained symptoms) were compared using measures such as the Social Impact Scale, the Revised Illness Perception Questionnaire, and the Eight-item Patient Health Questionnaire Depression Scale. Results from this study suggest that stigma is a robust predictor of depression, even when controlling for gender and age. Surprisingly, whether or not illnesses have a known pathophysiology did not seem to be associated with stigma nor depression. Results suggest that that social psychological feelings regarding stigma, specifically internalized shame and social isolation, should be included as an additional illness representation construct in predicting depression outcomes for patients with ongoing physical symptoms of illness. Interestingly, stigma was found to be more predictive of depression than all dimensions of illness representations, including emotional representations. Perhaps a focus on perceived stigma, rather than illness label or category, will provide a more important direction for future research and interventions addressing depression in chronic illness.

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