Understanding the Importance of "symbolic Interaction Stigma": How Expectations about the Reactions of Others Adds to the Burden of Mental Illness Stigma

Bruce G. Link, Jennifer Wells, Jo C. Phelan, Lawrence Yang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Objective: Important components of stigma include imagining what others might think of a stigmatized status, anticipating what might transpire in an interaction with others, and rehearsing what one might do if something untoward occurs. These imagined relations are here called symbolic interaction stigma and can have an impact even if the internalization of negative stereotypes fails to occur. Concepts and measures that capture symbolic interaction stigma are introduced, and a preliminary assessment of their impact is provided. Method: Four self-report measures of symbolic interaction stigma (perceived devaluation discrimination, anticipation of rejection, stigma consciousness, and concern with staying in) were developed or adapted and administered to a sample of individuals who have experienced mental illness (N = 65). Regression analyses examined whether forms of symbolic interaction stigma were associated with withdrawal, self-esteem, and isolation from relatives independent of measures of internalization of stigma and rejection experiences. Results: As evidenced by scores on 4 distinct measures, symbolic interaction stigma was relatively common in the sample, somewhat more common than the internalization of stigma. In addition, measures of symbolic interaction stigma were significantly associated with withdrawal, self-esteem, and isolation from relatives even when a measure of the internalization of stigma was statistically controlled. Conclusion: The study suggests the potential importance of considering symbolic interaction forms of stigma in understanding and addressing stigma and its consequences. Being aware of symbolic interaction stigma could be useful in enhancing rehabilitation goals if an approach to counteracting the negative effects of these aspects of stigma can be developed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)117-124
Number of pages8
JournalPsychiatric Rehabilitation Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2015



  • isolation
  • rejection
  • stigma
  • symbolic interaction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Professions (miscellaneous)
  • Rehabilitation
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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