Watch Your Mouth! How Your Words Can Add to Stigma

Watch Your Mouth! How Your Words Can Add to Stigma

Written by Corinne Cavender, Behavioral Health Operations Coordinator

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we don’t call her a cancer. We use positive descriptors like “strong”, “brave”, and even “hero”. When someone breaks his leg, we encourage medical attention and ample time to heal. So, why am I not strong, brave, or someone’s hero because I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Should we not also be supportive and encourage professional help when one is internally struggling?

Let me answer those questions for you. I am still strong, brave, and maybe even someone’s hero. And YES! I encourage you to seek professional help while you are struggling. But there is another battle we must fight here: we must address the use of stigmatizing language. We must treat physical and mental diagnoses with the same amount of dignity.

Why? With any physical or mental issue, you are not your diagnosis. Let me say that again for the people in the back: YOU ARE NOT YOUR DIAGNOSIS. Likewise, with many physical or mental issues, recovery is possible. Using incorrect language when we talk about mental health or substance use challenges perpetuates stigma and makes recovery even harder. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to get over it. So, you shouldn’t tell someone living with depression to get over it.

The good news is there is a simple fix. We can change the way we speak about mental health and substance use challenges and thus change our attitudes about the matter. Here’s how you can start:

Don’t say: “Schizophrenic,” “psychotic,” “disturbed,” or “crazy.” Do say: “Person living with schizophrenia”; “Person experiencing psychosis, disorientation or hallucination”. Why? Again, you are not your diagnosis. You have a broken leg. You are not a broken leg. You are living with anxiety. You are not anxiety.

Don’t say: “Committed suicide”. Do say: “Died by suicide”. Why? You commit crimes and sins, which have negative connotations. Using the words “commit” and “suicide” in the same sentence perpetuates the stigma that the feelings behind thoughts of suicide are not valid and are punishable.

Don’t say: “OCD” to describe being organized or “Bipolar” to reflect changes in mood. Why? These are mischaracterizations of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. So, when they are used incorrectly to describe something they are not, it invalidates the experiences of those who actually live with the disorders.  

Don’t say: “Substance Abuse”. Do say: “Substance Use Disorder”. Why? These individuals are not choosing to “abuse” a substance. Many times, there are neurological factors or emotional factors that lead to this behavior. Saying “use” removes the blame that comes with the word “abuse”.

Lastly, please, PLEASE do not make jokes about killing yourself. I hear all too often people describing something they do not like and conclude with “I wanted to kill myself” or similar statements or gestures. Suicide is serious and suicidal thoughts always need to be taken seriously. If you are joking about it, again, you are invalidating those who are having thoughts. Joking about suicide is hurtful on many different levels. Just don’t do it!  

Like I said, this is a start. A beautiful start. If we could all vow to try to make these changes in how we speak, imagine how we could change society’s view on mental health and substance use challenges. Imagine the support society could give to those living with mental health or substance use challenges. Imagine how beautiful our world could be.  I made the vow to focus on using the proper language for mental health issues. Will you join me?

For more information on stigmatizing language please visit these sites:

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