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26 June 2014

Epilepsy stigma can be worse than seizures says psychologist

Epilepsy expert Dr Sallie Baxendale has criticised the media and social media for perpetuating outdated myths and misconceptions that fuel the stigma around  epilepsy.The consultant neuropsychologist at Epilepsy Society said that breaking down stereotypes associated with the condition was a long, slow challenge.

Speaking at the International League Against Epilepsy neuropsychiatry of epilepsy symposium in London she said news coverage of epilepsy often reinforced negative attitudes. At the same time the entertainment industry relied on overly dramatic stereotypes to represent the neurological condition that affects 1 in 100 people across the country.

Dr Baxendale  said a recent national newspaper headline stating ‘Epileptic man stabbed his noisy neighbour to death with a fish knife’ unfairly linked the murder to the man’s epilepsy. In another high profile court case where a man with epilepsy was found guilty of killing his mother, archaic judicial language associated epilepsy with insanity.

‘Too often there is an association between epilepsy, madness and violence which does not help with the stigma attached to the condition,’ said Dr Baxendale.

Epilepsy as an emergency

‘Alongside this, in the entertainment arena, epilepsy is often over dramatised with the person falling to the ground and foaming at the mouth. Treatment is always portrayed as an emergency with ambulances and blue flashing lights.’

Dr Baxendale also said that social media, though often a very positive influence, could also contribute to the stigma of epilepsy. One recent study looked at 10,000 tweets relating to epilepsy and found that 40 per cent of them were derogatory. However she stressed that often, supportive comments across social media helped counteract negativity.

The neuropsychologist told delegates that the burden of living with stigma could have more of an impact on the lives of people with epilepsy than the burden of living with seizures.

‘A person may only have a seizure once or twice a year but they will live with the stigma of seizures all year round.’

Anxiety and depression

She said that people who tried to hide their epilepsy often experienced increased anxiety and depression.  When a person felt comfortable in sharing their epilepsy with those around them, feelings of anxiety and depression decreased.

‘The only way to tackle stigma is to increase the individual’s personal resilience and to try and change attitudes at a social level.  To do this we need to target young people through schools, education and social media.’