The word ‘stigma’ when attached to mental health

The word ‘stigma’ when attached to mental health

By Liz Lockhart

When writing articles for Mental Healthy I am always conscious that I have a responsibility to get things right.

One area that can be tricky is the use of words.  It is so easy to offend, exclude individuals or give misconceptions simply by using the wrong word.  One word that I use from time to time is ‘stigma’.  I wish I didn’t have to use it but here we are in the 21st century and, sad as it is, there is still stigma surrounding mental health.

Whenever this word is used on our website emails come in from readers who say that by using this term it perpetuates the stigmatisation of mental illness, but does it?  We are very mindful of the use of the term but as long as stigma remains it is occasionally necessary to point it out and, in doing so, to use the word that sometimes causes concerns.  In an ideal world, and perhaps one day, it will no longer be necessary.

I recently read a report by Clare Allan in the Telegraph in which she said that a reader had objected to her using the term ‘service user’ when referring to people with mental illness.  The objection came on the grounds that this phrase excluded people who have a need for services but have been discharged or have failed to get the services which they require.  I recognised Clare’s difficulty and it made me reflect on mine.

Back to the word ‘stigma’ – the Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person -

  • :the stigma of mental disorder
  • to be a non-reader carries a social stigma

I must admit that I was surprised to find that the Oxford Dictionary cites ‘the stigma of mental disorder’ as its first example of the use of the word.

People who have life-changing experiences generally feel passionate about them.  Poor mental health is certainly life-changing as I know from personal experience.  When writing for a group of passionate people it is sometimes easy to offend as each person has their own personal perspective on their varying conditions.  The best I can do is to reassure readers that I do my utmost when considering what I write and how I write it.  Knowledge is powerful and hopefully there are things to be learnt from the news which I trawl through to bring you up-to-date reports on what is going on in the world of mental health.

Language is open to personal interpretation, it has to be.  We all write and read as individuals and this is where the problem lies.  Language is the bridge that connects all people and I believe that it doesn’t really matter if that bridge is sometimes a little wobbly, we must keep trying to cross it. 

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