We talk about migraine as being a stigmatised disease, but what does that mean, exactly, and how many people experience stigma because of migraine in New Zealand?
The stigmatising of migraine began in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it became seen as a female or feminine disease, associated with a delicate constitution.¹ The lack of understanding of what causes migraine also led it to be misunderstood and neglected. In the last century, migraine has been considered to be a vascular disorder, a psychological or psychosomatic condition, caused by toxins, allergies or food intolerances or hormonal imbalances.² It's only relatively recently that migraine has been accepted as a neurological disease and only in 1988 that the International Headache Society published criteria for the diagnosis of migraine.
All this to say, there is still a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about the nature of migraine and what it means to live with migraine disease. Stereotypes and untruths about migraine and people with migraine abound – ‘it’s just a headache’, ‘it’s a woman’s disease’, ‘it’s caused by stress’, ‘it’s not a serious disease’, ‘it’s an excuse to get out of doing things’, ‘you’re malingering’, it’s your diet’, ‘it’s your personality’, ‘take a pill and get over it’. It’s this type of misinformation that can cause all sorts of people, including friends and family, to judge and make you feel bad when you have a migraine attack.
From the 2022 Migraine in Aotearoa New Zealand Survey, over half of respondents sometimes, often or always felt judged or misunderstood by friends because of their migraine disease; 44% felt this way from family. You might expect that the level of misunderstanding from family would be much lower, given that family members are more likely to witness the effects of migraine than friends.