Language and Stigma

by Sarah Myles

In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of the power of language, and that the choices we make in the words we use every day carry enormous impact. Maybe it’s because I have children, maybe it’s because I am sensitive to stigmatisation and bullying. Maybe it’s both.

So often, people use words without giving any thought to their meaning or whether their use is actually appropriate in that context. In an age where we are constantly communicating across several different media, as well as in person, thoughtful use of language seems to be becoming rarer and rarer.

In mental health in particular, language often feeds directly into stigma. Perhaps the most common example would be referring to a violent or angry person as a “psycho”, as being “mental”, or “schizo”, which helps to perpetuate the myth that all mentally ill people are angry and capable of violence.

The ramifications of thoughtless language use go beyond incorrect labelling, however. Throwing around these words (“Then our teacher caught us bunking off and went mental”, “He got totally OCD about it”) completely trivialises their meaning, in the same way that referring to “Frape” (the unauthorised use of someone’s Facebook page), trivialises serious sexual assault.

Some people may think such views are a bit uptight – probably the same people that would roll their eyes and attribute it to me being “crazy”. The fact remains that just because somebody has got angry, or committed a violent act does not make them a psychopath, just as somebody using your Facebook page without permission (while being a material violation) is nothing like actually being raped. To suggest that it is further demeans and stigmatises the people affected by those very real, actual things.

Used correctly and carefully, language can be the most powerful tool in our bag, and can change the world for the better. It just takes a little bit of thought.

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