Society’s expectations of you shape you
Over the next 12 weeks, the participants of Hard Edges: Lives Behind the Numbers will share with you their life journeys. This is the first in a series of blogs that follows each story. Today, we examine the role of stigma in the lives of people who are experiencing multiple disadvantage, and how the expectations your family, your friends, or your community have of you can play a part in shaping a person’s identity. Take, for example, Colin’s story. After carrying the stigma of a ‘special’ school student’ as a child, and of an ‘alcoholic on a bench’ as an adult, Colin is now working on building a new positive identity for himself.
“When people see you as a burden, you start acting as one”
There are certain assumptions about what constitutes a ‘good’ life; excelling academically, gaining qualifications, getting and maintaining a job, making a successful marriage, 2.4 children – you know the score. The failure to uphold these expectations exposes a person’s inability to adhere to what’s ‘normal’, creating stigma. In essence, that person’s identity is then up for grabs. They’re forced to conform often in ways they find difficult, sometimes in ways they find impossible, and almost always in ways that are damaging.
In Colin’s case, the stigma began early. At 6, he was placed in a school for learning disabilities and immediately branded ‘stupid and no-good’ by the local community, including his own father. He left school with no qualifications, and was unable to find employment which compounded people’s impression of him – “people put you in that bracket of being a loser”.
Lack of education was a key statistic cited in the Hard Edges report data – over two fifths (45%) of people facing severe and multiple disadvantage have no qualifications at all. Unable to get a job and with a prospect-less future, Colin turned to alcohol to hide his feelings of worthlessness, and was an alcoholic for thirty years.
Colin believes, “When people see you as a burden, you start acting as one”. Viewed negatively by all around him, alcohol was the only option to escape, and distance himself from society. He describes that there is a “stigma that people who are in addiction commit all the crimes – they don’t actually because at the end of the day they isolate themselves to get away from it all”.
This seems to corroborate with the Hard Edges data – 75% of people facing severe and multiple disadvantage identify with loneliness – suggesting that perhaps people hide themselves away to avoid being judged.
“People put you in that bracket of being a loser.”
Reputations can be long lasting and be hard to shake, even if people are already on the road to recovery and self-transformation. Colin talks of needing to remove himself from negative environments, and being unable to visit any of the places he used to frequent when drunk – “I can’t go the pub. If I do – people will put two and two together and make assumptions. I’ve got to prove myself – it’s all about proof. I don’t want to be that loser anymore. It’s about proving to people that they can trust me and that I can be someone.”
As society, what can we do to improve the prospects of people experiencing severe and multiple disadvantage from a young age? There has been a generation gap since Colin attended school, and today our schools have vastly improved how they approach their duty of care to protect children. There is still a clear question, however, about the role of education, and how we ensure it supports inclusivity and doesn’t exacerbate inequalities?
“I can’t go the pub. If I do – people will put two and two together and make assumptions.”
A recent example is Rochdale, which was rocked by scandal in 2012 following a court case that saw nine men jailed for child exploitation. According to the Local Government Chronicle, ‘before 2012, Rochdale failed to recognise and address issues that were damaging children’. Today, the situation is different thanks to a collaboration of social workers, specialist police officers, health workers, people with lived experience and more than 40 head teachers. Having a specialist team that works directly with schools helps identify problems at the earliest signs of occurrence, and focuses almost entirely on prevention and mental health support.
Schools are a microcosm of society. If indeed society’s expectations of you shape you, public services have a duty to ensure that schools are fully supported and equipped to help mould the kind of society we want; one that is inclusive and doesn’t see severe or multiple disadvantage an unbreakable barrier to living life.
Schools, society and stigma are few amongst many insights into what shapes a person. Take time now to hear what Colin has to say about his life, and reflect on how we can better support people in his situation.