The mental health community uses the word “stigma” to describe negative public attitudes towards people with mental illnesses. It’s short and easy to say. In a nutshell, stigma refers to any negative attitude, prejudice, or false belief associated with specific traits, circumstances, or health symptoms.
But, perhaps it's time to stop using the word "stigma" and call it what it really is. What people with mental illness are facing is not stigma, it’s discrimination.
Let's take a look at couple examples to help put this in perspective:
If the rate of heart attacks spiked and there were no beds available in the cardiac unit, would more beds be built? If a public health issue caused over 45,000 deaths in a year in our country and the rate kept increasing would it be called a crisis? The answer to both questions is simple: yes.
For far too long, practitioners have approached physical health and mental health separately. Physical health, it seems, is treated as “real medicine,” while mental health is regarded as a separate, and often lesser, discipline. This misguided judgment, in turn, leads to the isolation and marginalization of people with mental illness. It's not stigma. It's discrimination.
The word stigma doesn’t reflect the horrible impact of stereotypes that ridicule and make fun of people with mental illness. It doesn’t expose the seriousness of negative words to describe people such as “crazy” or “nuts.” No other health condition has slang words to describe it. It’s easier to dismiss people when we use these negative slang words to describe them. I once heard that "dehumanization starts with language". So, let's not call it "stigmatizing". Let's call it what is it..."dehumanizing".
In order to create change and promote understanding, we must begin by addressing hurtful labels, calling out reductive language and changing the conversation about mental illness in our own lives. Shedding light on and educating ourselves and others about the damaging effects of stigmatizing language is an essential step toward ending discrimation
When we change our words, we can change people’s attitudes and perceptions of mental health.