What Makes People Sick? Psychologist Says It Isn’t Always Obvious

Professor Stephenie Chaudoir aims to understand the long-term impact of living with concealable stigmatized identities

As a researcher and teacher, Stephenie Chaudoir’s goal is twofold: to understand what it is like to be the target of prejudice and how to support those who are subject to it; and to help students become acute learners, researchers, and to actively engage in society.

At the College of the Holy Cross, the assistant professor of psychology does both.

Chaudoir’s research focuses on the psychological and physical ramifications of living with concealable stigmatized identities — socially devalued attributes that can be concealed from others — including mental illness, HIV/AIDS, and sexual minority status, among others. Concealable stigmas, she says, are more common than people might think.

Funded by a $181,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Chaudoir continues to explore these topics, specifically looking at how the ways in which people talk about concealable stigmatized identities can impact their long-term health. “When we think about what is making us sick, we tend to think about biological factors, such as exposure to pathogens or viruses,” says Chaudoir, “but they are only part of the story.”

More often than not, it all comes down to stress.

“Ideally, our personal relationships and our communities make us feel like valued parts of society,” explains Chaudoir. “But when we feel as though we’re devalued and excluded, it can create a significant amount of stress, which can make us more vulnerable to illness and disease.”

Chaudoir, who was recently named the co-recipient of the Michele Alexander Early Career Award for Scholarship and Service through the Society of Psychological Study of Social Issues, marries research from biology, psychology, and sociology.

“By building bridges between theory and methods from these diverse fields, my research is trying to better understand how social inequality affects the whole person,” says Chaudoir. “Bodies, minds, and societies each influence health and well-being, and we’ve now been able to integrate research tools — from surveys to measures of stress hormones — to be able to study the relative contribution of each.”

Because Holy Cross students are aligned with the mission of the College and oriented to have social justice concerns, Chaudoir explains, they serve as a good sounding board and as critical partners in moving the research forward. In her lab, students have the opportunity to participate in activities typically reserved for master’s or Ph.D. level students.

Cecilia Wolfe ‘15, a psychology major with concentrations in peace and conflict studies and women’s and gender studies, has been working in the lab since 2013 and says Chaudoir’s example of leadership is an excellent one.

“The autonomy that Professor Chaudoir encourages is something very unique in my experience,” Wolfe says. “I often find I am treated more as an equal than as a student, and I always feel like I'm learning more about how to conduct research.”

The intersection between her research and her students does not strictly take place in the lab.

“There is this beautiful synergy where I bring the research into the classroom and my students share their experiences with me,” she says. “This process helps to make the research we do more rich, realistic, and nuanced; and more grounded in the real time concerns of my students.”

Through her work as a researcher and professor, Chaudoir has merged her passion for psychology and social justice.

“This research helps to deepen our understanding of what it means to live in solidarity with other people and to be men and women for and with others. We all have to be vigilant to make sure that we are building safe spaces because our everyday interactions, the climates and cultures we choose to create, either help make the world a little bit healthier or can help make the world a little worse off.”

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