Mental Health Stigma Arises from Language

One of the clues to mental health stigma is in our language. Why do many, for example, talk in hushed tones about the “mentally ill” but are not so judgy or secretive when reporting about the “physically ill?”

More specifically, why do we say someone “is” his or her diagnosis, e.g., he or she IS schizophrenic, versus saying that person “HAS schizophrenia”? Do we ever say so and so “IS cancer”? Or “IS a broken leg”?

Mental health stigma is definitely at play. Another language example comes from researchers at Ohio State University. They reported (Science Daily) that when participants heard about “the mentally ill” they showed less tolerance than when they heard about “people with mental illness.”

What is “mental illness” anyway? A few definitions:

  • American Psychiatric Association“…health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness: “…a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.”
  • Mental Health America“…a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines.”

Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (1920-2012), on the other hand, famously proclaimed “the myth of mental illness” in his “Manifesto” :

Mental illness is a metaphor (metaphorical disease). The word disease denotes a demonstrable biological process that affects the bodies of living organisms (plants, animals, and humans). The term mental illness refers to the undesirable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of persons.

Likewise, David Oaks, a “psychiatric survivor” and founder of MindFreedom International, has proposed that “‘mentally ill’ reflects a medical model that’s too narrow. If you’re okay using this model about yourself, that’s one thing, he adds, but it shouldn’t be the only way of looking at things. Thus he goes further:

…Let’s stop legitimating the use of words and phrases like ‘patient’ and ‘chemical imbalance’ and ‘biologically-based’ and ‘symptom’ and ‘brain disease’ and ‘relapse’ and all the rest of the medical terminology when we are speaking about those of us who have been labeled with a psychiatric disability.

What kind of language might serve us better?

Are we supposed to go the way of insurance company lingo, I wonder, and try to view issues as “behavioral health” versus “mental health”? Less about your brain or having an illness, more about what you do? Even though they simultaneously require billing codes that label people with mental disorders in order for them to qualify for coverage?

Anne Cooke, PhD, proposes the following to psychiatrist Allen Frances in a Psychology Today post on a related topic: .”..Why not just use people’s own language? That way we enable people to define their own experiences and avoid imposing our own ideas on them.” (This advice would be more applicable to everyday or clinical usage than helping clients use their insurance coverage, I need to add.)

But what about, asks Frances, the more severe issues that actually require proper diagnosis or labeling in order to have an understanding of how to resolve them? Back to an earlier analogy, a broken leg can’t be properly fixed if we don’t diagnose it correctly in the first place.

No easy answers, but a combination of knowledge and sensitivity will at least guide our communication toward some better places.

One thought on “Mental Health Stigma Arises from Language

  1. Thanks for this post! I struggle with the language of mental health all the time. While many people want a diagnosis to help them explain their painful experiences (for some a label can be comforting), categorizing can also be limiting and sometimes misses some of the essence of being human. Glad you brought this subject up.

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