Take Care of Yourself! Blaming and Shaming People with Illnesses

pointing fingerMy brother died in 2007. He had a very rare form of cancer. The time between figuring out what was wrong and his death was short – 6 months. And you know what happened most often when I told people about it during that six months? People blamed him. “Have you told him about The China Study? About how eating meat causes cancer?” No. No I didn’t.

Listen, I’m an incredibly dedicated vegan. I know the science. I run my life based on the ethics. But when someone is sick, when someone is DYING, I’m not spending my time with them advocating for the vegan cause. And I’m sure as hell not going to victim blame. Which brings me to this article.

The article discusses the tendency for workplaces to cause stress-related illness in their employees and then turn around and blame those employees for not “taking care of themselves.” While it is specific to the therapy arena, it applies throughout the range of employment sectors. And, moreover, I think it applies beyond the working world. Sure, there are some very specific consequences when this occurs in the context of employment, but I’m concerned with the fact that we victim blame people with illness in the first place.

It’s this crazy: those most stressed by the circumstances of their work, which they can’t control, are expected to reduce their own stress, which they can’t do because of their lack of control, and in the end, are held responsible by those in control when they ultimately fail to reduce their stress, which they can’t help but do. The result is a kind of tertiary traumatization. In effect, the message is “We gave you what you needed. If you’re not improving, it’s your fault.

A well-known public health concept is social determinants of health. This means that social factors influence and determine our health status. These include place, class, race, gender, and so much more . Simply put, we don’t treat people equally and if you’re not treated well, your health suffers. And then you’re told it’s your fault. You aren’t eating well, you aren’t exercising, you aren’t taking care of yourself. Come on, there’s something much bigger happening here.

When we live in a world in which systems that benefit people with certain characteristics and opportunities flourish, we have no right to victim blame. Those who deserve to be held responsible are the systems, the industries in place, that promote the unhealthy, the unjust, and the inequitable. No, I didn’t talk to my brother about The China Study. I spent my time sharing his love and hoping desperately that he’d get better. And by god, the next person I hear giving a sick person a surface-level, “take care of yourself,” is going to experience my wrath.


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