By Andrew Thompson
It is impossible to look at the issue of mental health and not see how every element of the language that surrounds it in our culture creates a barrier to truly understanding and helping others. The stigma that surrounds mental illness is very much built into the words, phrasing and lingo of our time. There are far too many words that are used in our vernacular that degrade, demean and disempower individuals who are suffering from a mental illness. Our language itself has become a barrier to acceptance, compassion, understanding, and ultimately wellness. Stigma can be broadly defined as having two major components: public stigma and self-stigma have been described as ‘the process by which the actions of others spoil normal identity.’ Public stigma shows itself in stereotyping (All people with mental illness are dangerous), prejudice (I agree, people with mental illness are dangerous and I am afraid of them) and discrimination (I do not want to be near them; don’t hire them at my job). It is the most outward and overt manifestation of stigma and causes those who are suffering from mental illnesses to reject the acceptance of a diagnosis. Self-stigma also encompasses stereotyping (All people with mental illness are incompetent), prejudice (I have a mental illness, so I must be incompetent), discrimination (why should I even try to get a job; I’m an incompetent mental patient), and discourages individuals to seek treatment and stay in treatment. Both of these elements of stigma are based in a language that essentially creates fear, damages self-esteem, and marginalizes those who are suffering. This kind of language learning and stigma creation starts so very early that we are often unaware of its presence. A Canadian study, done by a team of researchers who set out to explore the presence of language that would ‘set apart and denigrate’ individuals who were suffering with clearly defined mental illnesses in children’s films, found that in 85% of Disney films there were significant examples of verbal ‘disparagement, ridicule and denigration.’ Another study from the United Kingdom found that 46% of cartoons aired on national television demonstrated a vocabulary towards those suffering from mental illness as ‘predominantly negative or fundamentally disrespectful…The characters were typically losing control, constantly engaged in illogical and irrational actions and were stereotypically and blatantly negative, and served as objects of amusement, derision and fear.’ Finally, in another piece of media related research, it was observed that in television and print media between one-third and two-thirds of the stories related to mental illness involved an individual committing a violent act and the highest rate of negative references were observed in children’s cartoons where nearly two-thirds of all references to someone with a mental illness involved that individual committing a violent act. It is no wonder that our society is so filled with stigma and misunderstanding about those who suffer from a mental illness. The frame is set so early. The use of stigmatizing language among the adult population is equally prevalent. The use of words such as mad, crazy, retarded, or nuts is so commonplace that few realize their origin and power.
Most view them as harmless relics that are no longer connected to the daily experience of individuals suffering from a mental illness- but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. These words create literal barriers between the ‘sane, competent, orderly, rational and grounded’ individuals and those who are disparaged by this stigmatizing language. For many, it may seem innocent or innocuous to use these kind of words but they become the foundation of a kind of stigma that blocks treatment, prevents employment, denies housing opportunities and wreaks havoc on the self-esteem and hope for so many. A journalist who works for a major national publication, in a recent article about stigmatizing language, noted that even in his workplace, there was a sign above a major entrance stating, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps.” It has become far too commonplace to hear among adults, phrases such as, ‘I’m so OCD,’ ‘That was ADD of me,’ or ‘This is so stressful, I’m about to have a panic attack.’ This kind of trivialization of mental illness discounts the suffering and anguish experienced by so many and devalues the process of diagnosis and treatment. However, being one of the most fluid and dynamic human capacities, language can change and adapt. If we are to truly help the fight against stigma towards mental health, it is important that we adopt a language that is more person-centered, recovery-focused, and that is grounded in compassion. And, this requires only small but deliberate gestures. If we can as a culture stop talking about individuals as diagnoses, ‘he’s a schizophrenic,’ or ‘he’s a bipolar,’ and talk about what someone has been diagnosed with, has experienced, or lives with. If we can focus on the symptoms that someone is suffering from, ‘James is experiencing a lot of fear or is worried that his neighbours want to hurt him’ and avoid simplifications such as ‘James is a paranoid delusional.’ And finally, if we can reduce our use of jargon or technical language, “Marie is resistant, decompensating, or is codependent,’ instead ‘Marie is having a rough time, is having difficulty with her recommended medication, and her needs are not being met in her current relationship. One of the most important ways in which we can make a contribution towards an overall reduction in stigma towards mental illness in our communities is fundamentally changing how we talk about mental illness. Although a simple change in language may seem like an insignificant gesture, I assure you, it builds a culture of acceptance, openness, richness and trust and aids in the process of moving towards recovery and well-being.