How Can I Fight the Stigma of Disease?

In this lesson, students will explore the ways people with a critical health condition or disease might feel, as well as various ways they can support and show compassion toward those who are living with an illness.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • define dignity and compassion
  • identify examples of how to treat people with dignity
  • recognize stigmas of disease
  • research to find facts that counteract misconceptions about diseases
Essential Questions
  • How can we show compassion to people who are seriously ill?
  • What are ways that we can treat people with dignity?
  • How can we fight the stigma of disease?


Say the word disease and a lot of people cringe. Sometimes people are so afraid of disease that it causes them to shun others who have a critical illness or treat them like they are less than human. This can lead to feelings of isolation during a time when the person who is ill might already feel fairly alone. How can we support our friends who have a critical health condition, such as diabetes, asthma, HIV/AIDS or cancer? What can we do to encourage others to act with more compassion toward peers with illnesses?

In this lesson, students will explore the ways people with a critical health condition or disease might feel, as well as various ways they can support and show compassion toward those who are living with an illness.



compassion [kuhm-pash-uhn] (noun) a feeling of wanting to help someone who is experiencing misfortune, such as illness 

dignity [dig-ni-tee] (noun) worthiness; the quality of being worthy of respect

disease [dih-zeez] a sickness, such as asthma, cancer or diabetes, that causes the body not to work normally 

empathy [em-puh-thee] (noun) the understanding of or the ability to identify with another person’s feelings or experiences 

stigma [stig-muh] (noun) a negative and often unfair belief commonly associated with something, such as disease

sympathy [sim-puh-thee] (noun) the feeling of being sorry for someone else’s misfortune



  1. Think about a friend, schoolmate, family member or fictional character who has a serious medical condition, such as asthma, cancer or diabetes. How do others treat this person? Does this person’s health condition affect the way others treat her?
  2. Look at the statements on the Anticipation Guide. Do you agree or disagree with what they say about the treatment of people who have serious health issues? After completing Step 1, pick the statement you disagree with most and discuss your reasons with a partner.
  3. With your partner, complete Compassion and Dignity. For the words compassion and dignity, you should: a) write a definition, b) identify characteristics, c) provide examples and d) brainstorm non-examples. (Note: Have students share their answers and compile them into a whole-class word map.)
  4. Now read The Stigma of Disease. While reading, think about whether the students who have medical conditions in the scenarios are being treated with dignity. As you answer the questions, consider how their peers could show them compassion. Share with your partner three ways you think the students’ peers could show them compassion, two ways the students are not being treated with dignity and one way the scenarios made you feel.
  5. Then complete Steps 2 and 3 of the Anticipation Guide(Note: Take a quick poll of the class to identify the statements students changed their minds about.)
  6. Now reread the second scenario from The Stigma of Disease. What stigmas, or negative beliefs about HIV are exemplified in this scenario? (Note: Consider leading students in a discussion about the connotation of words such as disease, HIV and cancer. Ask students to think about how the connotation of these conditions might affect how others react to people who have them.)
  7. Visit Teens Health HIV and AIDS and Teens Health My Friend Has HIV to research the facts about HIV and how it is contracted. Based on your research, write a persuasive letter to Todd or Andrew from the second scenario of The Stigma of Disease, convincing him to change his behavior toward Ryan.
Extension Activity

Work with your class to start a day of activism at your school for people with a serious health condition (e.g., host a walkathon).

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