The Connection Between Language and Stigma

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As an English major and a poet, I have spent significant amounts of time puzzling over a single word that best fits what my current piece of writing calls for; I know that a slight shift in connotation between two different adjectives can make a world of a difference. Our language is absolutely rich with variety in terms of words that we have for describing emotion, and as my “feelings” vocabulary has grown, I have come to the realization that some of my previous language choices in describing how I feel are potentially marginalizing to people with mental illnesses, and that the impact of using such language is more harmful than some might expect. In this post, I hope to provide some helpful resources and suggestions so that we might all be more thoughtful in our choices of words.

In a wonderful post on Everyday Feminism, the author writes, “Using mental illnesses as figures of speech has become so pervasive in our colloquialisms that many of us fail to even acknowledge its presence.” This statement is a reference to the widespread use of phrases like “depressed” and “bipolar” for situations that have nothing to do with mental illness. For example, you may have heard someone say something like “Oh my gosh, I’m so OCD” just because they like to keep their bedroom neat and tidy. When people use phrases like this to describe how they’re feeling, it is unlikely that they are describing a symptom of mental illness, but rather just a temporary emotion or even a simple personality trait. To refer back to my example, why not just say something like “I really like to keep my personal space organized?” After all, a phrase like that is probably closer to what you actually mean. When using descriptors specific to diagnoses, we are potentially alienating our friends, family, and even strangers who might currently be dealing with a mental illness.

Additionally, there are other phrases common in our vocabulary that could be hurtful to people with mental illnesses because they are so frequently used in a derogatory manner. I’m thinking about words like “crazy,” “insane,” and “psychotic.” The use of these words in general conversation should be reconsidered simply out of politeness toward others, but also because they are tied up in a history of insults used to describe people with mental illnesses, and their use will only further contribute to stigma. How many times have you heard the word “crazy” used in reference to an woman with whom someone has a romantic history on T.V., or even in real life? Not only is it insensitive to individuals with mental illnesses, but it is inextricably linked to sexism as a response to emotions that people find unfavorable. As a Huffpost Canada blogger concisely describes it, “When you call someone ‘crazy,’ you are not helping them. You’re taking away that person’s right to feel whatever they need to.” By becoming attuned to precision and sensitivity in our language choice, we can work to eliminate stigma surrounding mental illness as well as combat sexist, overused, and uncreative tropes in media and in daily life such as the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” We are human and we therefore experience emotions, and there is nothing shameful about that fact. Cultivating more considerate vocabularies will be conducive to both open discussion about emotional distress as well as more widespread acceptance of those with mental illnesses.

In anticipation of a response that might argue I am suggesting a society full of so-called language police, I am simply offering an alternative to an inconsiderateness for people with mental illness. As is likely obvious, people can and will say whatever they want and I am fully aware that a simple blog post is unlikely to change the use of certain adjectives in the English language. However, because approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States is currently experiencing a mental illness, it’s likely that someone you know would appreciate your sensitivity in language choice. A linguistic environment that is inclusive to all, those with and without mental illness, is beneficial to everyone involved.

For those interested in adding different, non-marginalizing words to their vocabularies: http://isthisableism.tumblr.com/sluralternatives

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