Anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem are common among people living with vitiligo. Reducing stigma can help clear up harmful misconceptions and improve mental well-being.

Your skin is the largest organ of your body. It covers your entire external surface, and while it’s a protective layer with many functions, it’s also one of the parts of you people get to see.

Vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder that causes depigmentation of your skin. It can cause distinct patches of discoloration on one or both sides of your body. Experts consider it progressive, even if there are periods of stabilization.

People may feel self-conscience about vitiligo, especially if it’s on their faces or exceptionally noticeable on their skin.

Stigma about vitiligo can further affect mental well-being if others react negatively due to common myths and misconceptions about the condition.

When something is outside of the ordinary, it can create the opportunity for stigma, the negative perception that something is disgraceful.

If you live with vitiligo, you may face stigma for many reasons, according to an Ethiopian survey from 2020. These can vary depending on socioeconomic position, culture, and level of education.

Common misconceptions that can lead to stigma include that vitiligo is:

  • contagious
  • incurable
  • due to a lack of maintaining a hygiene routine
  • a sign of leprosy
  • related to a nutrient-deficient diet
  • hereditary
  • a precursor of skin cancer
  • punishment from god(s)
  • a curse
  • a sign of spiritual attack

None of these are true.

“The worst misconception about vitiligo is that it is contagious,” says Dr. Cameron Rokhsar, a board certified dermatologist and laser skin surgeon in New York City. “This is not true, but the belief that it is contagious can lead to fear and discrimination against people with the condition.”

He adds that the visible nature of vitiligo can lead to negative perceptions from others, such as assumptions about a person’s overall health or cleanliness.

Vitiligo often doesn’t cause many physical complications, but it can have psychological effects.

A 2021 study found that 76% of the participants with vitiligo experienced moderate to severe stress. Additionally, 78% of the participants reported moderate to severe anxiety, and 80% experienced moderate to severe depression.

According to the study, self-esteem challenges and embarrassment related to vitiligo affected daily choices, such as what clothes to wear, what food to eat, and whether to attend social events.

“Those with the condition may feel judged just by people looking at their skin,” says Megan Tangradi, a licensed professional counselor and clinical director at Achieve Wellness & Recovery in Northfield, New Jersey. “They might feel self-conscious about their appearance or worry that others will stare at them or make comments when out in public.”

Stigma adds a layer to the mental health effects of vitiligo. It can take your inner challenges with self-esteem and compound them with the belief that some people may be making silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) negative assumptions.

Negative attitudes can lead to discrimination, exclusion, bullying, and other cruel behaviors.

A 2019 study found that stigma affects males and females living with vitiligo, and experiencing stigma links significantly with a reduced quality of life and higher rates of depression.

It’s important to remember that vitiligo isn’t in control of your life — you are. The journey may not always be easy, but you can learn to overcome stigma and embrace your individuality.

Practice self-compassion

Kindness and acceptance have to start with you. If your inner voice is harsh and critical, there’s no escape from the negative feelings that can come with vitiligo.

To break this cycle, Tangradi recommends practicing self-compassion. This involves speaking with yourself as you would a loved one looking for support. It’s allowing yourself to be human without punishing yourself for things you can’t control.

“Try having daily affirmations. Then if you find it effective, make it a habit,” she suggests. “Tell yourself compliments or reminders regarding your strengths and achievements. This will hopefully help in building your confidence in the skin you’re in.”

Raise awareness

The more facts people know, the less they have to assume.

You don’t have to put yourself in the public eye to help spread information. Social media is a great way to pass along articles or infographics about vitiligo. You can also participate in outreach programs through local support organizations.

Empower yourself

Your looks are a small part of what makes you, you. When you feel down about one aspect of yourself, like your skin, empowering something else can help you regain confidence.

This could mean anything from improving a passion, like painting, to learning a new skill that promotes confidence and strength, like weightlifting or martial arts.

Talk with others about vitiligo

Your skin may not be anyone’s business, and it’s natural not to want to have to explain it to others, but calmly and factually speaking about vitiligo can help reduce stigma.

Tangradi says the best approach is transparency. Practicing telling your story in a way you’re comfortable with can help encourage understanding and empathy.

“If you feel like it, let them know that it’s OK to ask questions,” she suggests. “Still, set clear limitations of what they cannot [say or] do despite you being wide open [about] your experiences.”

Rokhsar adds that it’s important to stay as calm as possible during these conversations.

“Use language appropriate for your audience, keeping in mind that children may need information repeated to them,” he says. “Avoid negative framing and instead focus on educating others about the condition and its effects.”

If vitiligo interferes with you living life as you usually would — prevents you from enjoying your interests, contacting people you care about, forming relationships, or getting employment — a therapist or another mental health professional can help.

You don’t have to wait. If you experience stigma, depression, anxiety, or severe stress, you can speak confidentially with someone at any time by calling the SAMHSA National Helpline at 800-662-4357.

You may also ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health professional.

Vitiligo causes skin depigmentation. It can negatively affect your self-esteem and mental health by exposing you to the stigma that stems from myths and misconceptions.

You are more than just your skin, and overcoming stigma starts with being kind to yourself.

Increasing education, speaking factually about vitiligo, and empowering yourself in other areas of life can help you overcome the negative assumptions of others.