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Using Language to Reduce Stigma

As mental health issues gain more attention in the news today, we hear the word “stigma” thrown around quite a bit. There are various campaigns aimed at reducing mental health stigma—”Stop the Stigma”, “End the Stigma”, “Fight Stigma”—to name a few. But how are we using these campaigns to inform, educate, and impact people? More importantly, how can YOU change your language to reduce stigma? What are some ways in which language affects attitude?


12 Replies to “Using Language to Reduce Stigma”

  1. Tochi says:

    Language can do untold damage, and it can also uplift. Particularly in conversations about mental health, a topic so intensely personal but also intensely misunderstood. You can tell how someone feels about the topic by the way they refer to those suffering from mental illness. Crazy, retard, basehead, degenerate, selfish. All of those are slurs people suffering from mental illness have heard flung their way at one point or another. Either that, or they’ve heard them in passing and have realized that if they speak up about their own problems, they’ll make themselves into a target.

    All of that needs to change if there is to be any compassionate discourse on mental illness and those affected by it, if there is to be any change in the conversation.

    Perhaps the most important change, or the one that has impacted me the most, has been the change from “they” to “I.”

    Sometimes, it is someone talking about someone they know. “Those people who cut themselves” becomes “I know someone who cuts herself.” “Those alcoholics” becomes “my brother, who is an alcoholic.” It becomes personal. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “in 2012, there were an estimated 43.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. with AMI in the past year. This represented 18.6 percent of all U.S. adults.” That is nearly 1 in 4 adults 18 or older. It is impossible not to know someone who is struggling.

    Sometimes, the change is someone confessing to their own struggles. One of my favorite writers is a man named David Milch, a TV writer who wrote for Hill Street Blues, who co-created NYPD Blue, and has won incredible success in the industry. In interviews, he speaks frankly about his struggles with drugs and alcohol as well as his relationship with the fellowship, although he is careful to maintain anonymity. Listening to a hero talk about the things that someone else is also struggling with is perhaps one of the biggest cures for the loneliness that plagues those suffering from some form of mental illness or another.

    Confession seems like a tall order, often because it is. But when it comes out, people may begin to realize that, as far as mental illness, there is more that unites us than divides us.

  2. amber says:

    wow, Tochi. That is so well said. I love the suggestion of changing to “I” language. I had never heard that before in this context. Honestly, I find changing language to reduce stigma to be hard, since the way I speak is so well-ingrained in me. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean that I can’t do it! I am going to try to incorporate more “I” language. Also, I try to use “people-first” language. For example? Instead of saying “alcoholics,” “schizophrenics,” or “depressed people,” I try to say “individuals with alcoholism” or “people who have schizophrenia,” or “people with depression.” It emphasizes that people are people first and that their mental illness does not define them.

  3. lkruth says:

    Tochi is spot-on with remembering that for many of us, when we talk about mental health issues they are issues that people we love (or even we, ourselves) struggle with. We don’t want to be putting down people we love! We should start advocating for sensitivity the way that someone with an autistic sibling might advocate to not use the term “retarded.” Mental illness is a struggle for sure, but so are many areas of day-to-day life, and it shouldn’t be the only thing that we think about when we think about a person.

  4. mwatt says:

    This is such an important point and it’s hard to remember sometimes. Even in your example where you’re pointing out how people shouldn’t say “retarded,” the alternative term “autistic sibling” is still kinda stigmatizing (but I know what you meant). Autism isn’t the main feature of my sibling, it’s just one of many features. I had the chance to hear the woman speak who created the concept of “Person First language,” and she pointed out that a parent would never say “my cancerous son” instead of “my son who has cancer”! So we should think that way all the time: my brother has autism (not is autistic); my best friend has an addiction (not is an addict).

  5. Nana says:

    Everyone here is spot on. Person first language is key. I think it’s important for all of us to consciously make the decision to be carefuly in our word choice and order. Additionally, we should encourage others who may not think about this issue to do the same in our day to day conversations. That is how we can individually create change in this area. In terms of campaigns, I feel as though campaigns with celebrity spokespersons tend to be relatively successful. If we have more people who are out in the public eye willing to speak out and step up to try to create change, then hopefully, awareness will be raised and changes will be made.

  6. jgreens2015 says:

    People need to be aware that mental health issues are not the fault of the person. They are not a character flaw, weakness, or lack of will power. People need to know that this is a chemical imbalance of the mind, the same way people experience symptoms for any other part of their body.

  7. maria1234 says:

    Jgreens2015 makes a good point- mental illness is a chemical imbalance of the mind. It is not a choice the person makes. We would never use such detrimental language about somebody with a medical illness such as diabetes. Raising awareness about the biological nature of mental illness is key to reducing stigma.

  8. samdc says:

    I think that by having people with a platform open up about their own mental health journey and struggles it has made us feel less alone and like we can talk about it out loud without feeling alienated. Now, people are beginning to learn the correct terms to use when speaking about different mental health issues and thus they are starting to understand that they are no different than having other health issues, such as diabetes or asthma.

    I definitely try to make it a point to be mindful when using language. I try not to throw around words like “crazy” or “psycho”. It’s important to keep being mindful and noticing when saying things that could be hurtful to others. If people are not able to distinguish different diseases such as addiction or PTSD and they are lumping them all together and using the word “crazy” they are not going to understand the reality of those afflicted by those diseases. They are also going to be less likely to help and be able to provide the support that is needed.

  9. impossibleproject says:

    I really love all the responses here, especially the suggestions about person-first language! And at the same time, it takes some effort to change the way we have been talking our whole lives. I agree with Amber, the way we talk is ingrained in us and change may not happen overnight– just as society’s view on mental health may not change overnight. Change can be subtle and gradual, too. For example, we can we all make it a point to kindly correct friends or peers who misuse mental health terms or who are mis-informed about mental health challenges. We can educate them– provide them with accurate information!

  10. wisdom2015 says:

    I think–around depression–that sometimes the language against self-pity can be very corrosive: “Stop feeling so sorry for yourself,” or “Just snap out of it,” because they can make people who are depressed feel as if they are actively responsible for their own depression–if only we were better people, we could just get over it. When really depression works by convincing you that feeling depressed is the most conclusive evidence of your own inadequacy: it’s a vicious cycle.

  11. ewriter2015 says:

    Hearing people casually called “crazy” is one term that gets to me. It’s sadly become so commonplace to refer to women in particular as “crazy” as a result of any undesirable reaction or interaction. People suffering from mental illness, imbalance or unhealthy thought processes are liable to act in ways that are easy to label as “crazy” – whether it manifests in a struggle with addiction or moodiness or irrational self destructive actions, but these are all simply put, symptoms of larger issues that have no place under the casual label of “crazy.”

  12. sunshine says:

    I think that it is important for people to be aware of their language and to be careful what they say around anyone. Mental illness doesn’t always show on the surface so you never know whose feelings may get hurt. I think that we are taught to believe that people with mental illness are dangerous and that we can somehow catch something if we go near them. The “End the Stigma” campaigns help to show people that even those with mental illness can go on to be productive members of society. I feel that it is important for us to share our experiences to show people that they are not alone and that things do get better.


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