Professor hopes new research will help overcome devastating leprosy stigma and mental illness

Mental illness can be a lifelong consequence of experiencing the stigma and discrimination of leprosy, for millions of people worldwide. Those diagnosed with leprosy often suffer exclusion and isolation such as being thrown out of their families, losing their job or being unwelcome in public places or community events.

Leprosy Community near Allahabad. Photo: Ruth Towell

Not surprisingly such discrimination can result in a high burden of emotional stress, anxiety and depression and can lead to suicidal thoughts. In China suicide is the leading cause of death among people on treatment for leprosy and research in India shows that up to 76 per cent of people affected by leprosy have poor mental health.

A recent Global Health Action publication, written by researcher, Victoria Price, “Identifying the Barriers to Early Case Detection for Women Affected by Leprosy” found that women who had concealed their illness due to self-stigma, more frequently reported feeling sadness, shame, low self-esteem and depression, and these feelings often result in self-isolation.

Leprosy is still very much a 21st century disease with 214,783 people newly diagnosed last year and over 3 million people living with leprosy-related disability.

Elizabeth Mason-Whitehead, Professor of Health and Social Care at the University of Chester, hopes that her research into the stigma of leprosy may help improve the quality of life for the millions worldwide who suffer from the disease.

Dr Mason-Whitehead undertook her research at one of the largest leprosy hospitals in the world; The Leprosy Mission Hospital, Naini (Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India), where she used a stigma-analysis tool “looking at me” to reveal how stigma impacts on the daily life of a person affected by leprosy. She also visited people living in the Allahabad district. 

She said, “the stigma and discrimination experienced by a person diagnosed with leprosy can have a devastating effect on their life and a profound effect on their mental health.”

“The impact and consequences of leprosy stigma are for life. They can affect the whole family and everyone associated with the leprosy-affected person.” 

“I wanted to study stigma and leprosy through my own eyes, to understand it for myself and to do something with a practical outcome. I’ve always been interested in The Leprosy Mission’s work and very grateful for the collaborative expertise of their staff.” 

A better understanding of the impact leprosy has on people’s mental health will help the development of effective support programmes that aim to improve inner wellbeing of some of the world’s most marginalised people. 

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