b'ing stigma-free




Imagine that you’re an African American female student told by her teacher “Women don’t typically do well in math or science so you shouldn’t get upset if you do poorly.” Well, that student was me! I vividly recall these words like it was yesterday and I remember feeling numb and somewhat less confident in my decision to pursue a career in a scientific discipline. I said to myself, “Maybe I’m not good enough or smart enough. Maybe I should change my major. ”

Shifting Demographics

According to the US Census Bureau, by 2050 the US population will be mostly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities – most of whom will make-up the US workforce. In particular, one of the fastest growing segments of the workforce is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)1. Recent data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics show that STEM occupations have the highest projected increase in employment and higher median salaries compared to other occupations2. In 2010, STEM workers earned an average of 26 percent more than non-STEM professionals 3.

Despite these projections, racial and ethnic minorities comprise only a small percentage of those pursuing STEM degrees and entering the STEM workforce. African Americans comprise about 12% of the US population yet only about 6% of STEM fields. Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic population, comprise only about 7% of STEM fields. Exacerbating this, ethnic minorities also experience greater income disparity and lower socioeconomic status.4

Factors Influencing Decisions to Pursue STEM Disciplines

Given the shifting demographics of the US and the need for a highly trained STEM workforce to sustain economic growth and global competitiveness, there is a need to increase the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in STEM. It therefore becomes increasingly important to understand factors such as stigma associated with STEM that may impact decisions to pursue STEM careers and possibly bridge the income gap. Among factors that influence decisions by racial and ethnic minorities to pursue STEM disciplines and careers are structural barriers within the public education system such as limited access to and preparedness for advanced science and math coursework. This invariably leads to lower levels of college readiness for STEM disciplines.

Stigmatizing STEM

These barriers in STEM education may be exacerbated by the lack of support lower socioeconomic and ethnic minority students receive in the classroom. For instance, compared to students from higher SES populations, children of lower SES populations may experience more bias from teachers, be stigmatized and perceived to have less ambition, and as less intelligent.5 This negative treatment and stigmatized perception may lead to a lack of enthusiasm to pursue STEM careers or a belief that they are not capable of succeeding in STEM. “Maybe I’m not good enough or smart enough.” Poor minority students may therefore find themselves at a disadvantage prior to even considering STEM as a viable career path.

Diversifying the STEM Workforce

With current trends in the growth of STEM professions and predicted increase in racial and ethnic minorities, it is clear that educating a qualified, diverse workforce is necessary if the US is to remain competitive. Education in STEM is not reserved for the wealthy but should be available to everyone. A stigma free education that encourages all students to pursue education and training in one of the fastest growing careers is not only a necessity, it’s also the right thing to do.

“The future was uncertain, absolutely, and there were many hurdles, twists, and turns to come, but as long as I kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other, the voices of fear and shame, the messages from those who wanted me to believe that I wasn’t good enough, would be stilled.”
― Chris GardnerThe Pursuit of Happyness


1U.S. Census Bureau (2015). Retrieved from: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/11000.html.

2 Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014). U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Occupational employment and wages in 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2015/occupational-employment-wages-2014.htm.

3Langdon,D., McKittrick, G., Beede, D., Khan, B., and Doms, M. (2011). STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future, U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration. Retrieved from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/stemfinalyjuly14_1.pdf

4 Kochar, R. and Fry, R. (2014). Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of Great Recession. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/

5 William, W.R. (2009). Struggling with Poverty: Implications for theory and policy of increasing research on social class based stigma. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 9(1). 37-56.


TurnerMusa_2015Jocelyn Turner-Musa is an Associate Professor and Interim Chairperson in the Department of Psychology at Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of North Florida, a master’s and doctorate degree in Social Psychology from Howard University, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Mental Health Services from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Jocelyn is also the Director of the Student Training Core in the Morgan State University ASCEND Biomedical Center for Research. The ASCEND program is designed to aid in diversifying the biomedical, behavioral, and social science research workforce.

Jocelyn is a member of several professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Council on Undergraduate Research. She has received numerous awards including an American Fellows Award from the American Association of University Women, a Minority Fellowship Program award from the APA Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs, and the Morgan State University School of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences Deans Award for Outstanding Research. Jocelyn is the first in her family to receive a doctorate degree. She is married with a daughter who is pursuing a degree in Math with a minor in Physics.

“Coming from Kansas I’ve realized that this must be one of the worst states to be an atheist in the nation. Churches in Kansas are like Starbucks around the rest of the country: they’re everywhere, and everyone goes to them. When you first meet people it’s not odd for them to ask which church you go to or what religion you are. As an atheist, I’ve often lied and said I was Christian or that I didn’t belong to one church.

This is out of pure survival. I just wanted to avoid the dirty looks and disgusted words that pour out of my new Christian acquaintance. Of course, this doesn’t happen every time. There have been many moments where I shared my beliefs and my new friend acted very Christ-like. Those are the best encounters. I’ve been an atheist for quite a few years, and some of my closest friends still don’t know.”


Atheism_PEWWhen I put out a call for submissions for my book, Atheists in America, this was one of the first essays I received. It is a quote from Brittany Friedel’s piece “An Atheist in the Bible Belt” and when she wrote it, Brittany was a psychology major at a small Methodist college in Kansas. Although I completed my graduate studies outside of the bible belt, at a large public university, parts of her narrative paralleled my own experiences as an atheist (someone who does not believe in a god/gods or any supernatural beings) psychology doctoral student.

Training to be a psychologist – understandably – requires students to take a slew of coursework on therapy skills. In one of these courses, Career Counseling, we were discussing strategies that might help alleviate anxiety for a therapy client who was nervous about finding a job. Other students in the class volunteered a number of reassuring statements they would share with their client, including canned phrases such as “everything will work out as it should” and “trust in the universe.”

Though I was much more shy and mild-mannered in graduate school than I am now, I found that hearing these phrases pushed my discomfort to such a level that I had to say something. Raising my hand, I calmly asked, “But wouldn’t clients who are non-religious react poorly to statements like that?”

Other students in the class looked puzzled and asked what I meant.

Turning red and stammering, I continued, “Well… it just seems that if you aren’t religious or spiritual, ‘trusting in the universe’ is not a very reassuring concept, you know?”

At that point, one of my classmates who seemed slightly ruffled by my comment, turned to me and said “Melanie, you’d have to be a capital-A atheist to have a problem with those statements.”

“Well, I am.”

“Atheist? Really? But… you’re so nice.”

That same student stared at me blankly for a few seconds, and then skeptically remarked, “Atheist? Really? But… you’re so nice.”

At that moment, in that class, I realized just how stigmatized atheist people are in the United States (US). This stigma runs so deep that even in a large, public university amongst psychology doctoral students – who are, by the way, notoriously liberal and open-minded – it was completely acceptable to believe that being nice and being atheist were mutually exclusive identities to hold.

Pushing it further, if people do not believe atheists are nice, doesn’t it naturally follow that they are perceived as mean?

It turns out that the answer to that question, at least in the US, is yes. In 2003, philosophy of education professor Robert Nash defined Atheophobia as the fear and loathing of atheists that permeates American culture[1], and examples of this attitude persist at all levels of societal exchange.

As a snapshot, national polls from 2014[2] found that roughly half of Americans (1) believed that living a moral life was impossible without a belief in God, (2) would disapprove if a family member married an atheist, and (3) would be unlikely to vote for a presidential candidate who was atheist. To make matters worse, being an atheist was seen as the least desirable trait a presidential candidate could have – even worse than cheating on a spouse or using marijuana.

Being atheist may even cost you your life

The problem with prejudicial views and stigma, however, is that these beliefs motivate behavior. Thus, atheists experience both interpersonal discrimination (slander, social ostracism, coercion, verbal attacks, violence, property damage) and structural discrimination (denial of opportunities, goods and services) by those who hold atheophobia. In some countries, being atheist may even cost you your life, as seen by the recent murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.

At Teachers College, Columbia University my graduate students and I set out to further understand how experiencing stigma may impact atheists in the United States. To do this, we administered a questionnaire to several thousand atheist individuals and asked them to rate how frequently they were treated as if they were immoral, ostracized, made to feel ashamed, and/or asked to conceal their atheism. We found that the more participants experienced this atheophobic maltreatment, the higher their levels of psychological distress and social isolation were. Thus, experiencing stigma for being atheist has real ramifications for mental health.

Drawing parallels from my work with other stigmatized populations (e.g., people of color, LGBTQ individuals), I know that being involved in a community of likeminded people who share your identities is crucial to mental health. One way for atheists to assuage some of the stigma that they feel is to get involved with communities for humanists and nonbelievers such as Society for Ethical Culture, Sunday Assembly, OASIS, and other local organizations. Reflecting on Brittany Friedel’s story and my own, I wonder how these moments of marginalization would have felt with the presence of a supportive, atheist community at our backs.

In her narrative from Atheists in America, Pam Zerba wrote, “People who join Pennsylvania non-believers will often talk about how free they feel, how wonderful it is not to have to edit what you say, to hear others say all the things you’ve thought… It’s not that we’re obsessed with religion and talk about nothing else.

Even when we share stories about our kids, or swap recipes, that internal editor doesn’t have to be switched on, and that is an enormous relief. It is our intellectual home, the place where we can be ourselves without apology.”

I’m hopeful that through continued awareness-raising, we’ll reach a point in the US where nice and atheist are no longer seen as mutually exclusive.

[1] Nash, Robert J, (2003.) Inviting Atheists to the Table: A Modest Proposal for Higher Education, Religion & Education, 30,1.

[2] Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life, Pew Research Center, June 12, 2014. http://www.people-press.org/files/2014/06/6-12-2014-Political-Polarization-Release.pdf, Accessed 11/16/15.


Melanie_BrewsterMelanie Brewster is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University and earned her Ph.D from the University of Florida. Her research focuses on marginalized groups and examines how experiences of discrimination and stigma may shape the mental health of minority group members (e.g., LGBTQ individuals, atheists, people of color). Dr. Brewster also examines potential resilience factors, such as bicultural self-efficacy and cognitive flexibility, that may promote the mental health of minority individuals. Her first book, Atheists in America, was published in 2014 by Columbia University Press. She tweets about atheism, queer issues, and academia @melysebrewster


“Hijita, eso es algo que no debería ser compartido fuera de la familia.”
“Daughter, that is something that should not be shared outside of the family.”

Image: Fighting the stigma of mental illness in the Latino communityGrowing up as a child of two Mexican immigrants, and later as a counselor working in the Latino community, I have heard this sentiment often. Deeply ingrained within the Latino culture one finds a great amount of stigma and discrimination against mental illness — even to the point where people are afraid to seek help because of fears they will be perceived by their community as being ‘loco,’ or ‘crazy.’

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2011), by 2050 Hispanics will make up approximately 30 percent of the US population[1]. As this population increases, its need for mental health services and supports will likely grow. Unfortunately Latinos are not seeking these services. A study in Health Services Research (2013) by Benjamin Le Cook found that only 27 percent of Latinos in need of mental health care actually sought help[2]. This reluctance to seek care is due to a number of factors, including self-stigma and a fear of social perception.

Stigma against mental illness in the Latino community hits close to home for me. I actively fight myths and misperceptions about it through my work with journalists at The Carter Center, promoting accurate and sensitive depictions of mental illness in the media. In fact, one of the greatest misperceptions or misunderstandings within the Latino community revolves around the concept of asking for help in the form of talk therapy. During my time at a clinic for expectant or recently delivered Latina mothers, I found that many mothers did not realize they could benefit from therapy.

Sitting in front of me with a look of complete exhaustion on her face, I remember staring into Alejandra’s* beautiful brown eyes. She was a 23-year-old mother of newborn twin girls and had a rambunctious two-year-old in tow. Alejandra barely had enough energy to get through each day. She was depressed and exhausted. Alejandra came into the clinic for ‘free’ baby supplies, but she learned that she could also find some relief for herself through talk therapy with me. She had never realized that therapy was something she could benefit from, nor did she know it could re-energize her for the week. Eighty percent of the mothers with whom I worked were dealing with mild to severe depression; many felt like they had to figure out everything on their own, not wanting to be a burden to others.

Latinos don’t typically put a name to feelings like anxiety or discuss an emotional problem with others, even their closest relatives. My clients were dealing with a double dose of stress: being new mothers, as well as being in a new country. Once in a safe environment and given the opportunity to talk with a therapist, they could begin their road to recovery.

I urge all people, no matter what one’s ethnic background, to seek help if needed. It is NOT weak or needy to reach out for help and to speak about personal challenges when it is safe to do so. There is strength in vulnerability and a real courage found in someone who asks for the help he or she needs. Let’s break this cycle of cultural stigma together. We need to encourage a culture of recovery in all our interactions so that one day we can be a culture of wellness that promotes social inclusion, not only for Latinos, but for all.

I hope one day I will have a different conversation with my daughter.

“Hija, tu puedes compartir tus preocupaciones de salud mental fuera de la familia para obtener la ayuda que necesitas.” 
“Daughter, you can share your mental health concerns outside of the family to get the help you need.”

* Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.


[1]  U.S. Census Bureau, National Characteristics: Vintage 2011 (2011). http://www.census.gov/popest/data/national/asrh/2011/index.html. Accessed April 28, 2014.

[2] Center for Advancing Health, Blacks and Latinos Seek Mental Health Care Less Often (2013), http://www.cfah.org/hbns/2013/blacks-and-latinos-seek-mental-health-care-less-often. Accessed April 28, 2014.


Image: Stephanie Uribe, guest blogger from The Carter Center

Stephanie Uribe, M.Sc., M.Ed., is a program associate for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism at The Carter Center where she works with journalists to increase accurate reporting about mental health issues. This program decreases incorrect, stereotypical information about mental illness that leads to stigma. In addition to her work there, she actively volunteers on the planning committee for the UNESCO Annual Bioethics Art Competition and is a planning committee member with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta Young Leaders.

Photo: The Carter Center/P. Rohe. 



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