Language and Stigma

Have you ever thought about the words used in everyday life that encourage stigma? Have you noticed how media sometimes perpetuates this? Think of some popular TV shows, especially situation comedies, and I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with a few examples. Think of phrases like, “What a psycho!”, or “She must be having one of her (eye-roll) schizo moments”, followed by a laugh track. If you really deal with psychosis or schizophrenia, would you ever want anyone to know it, or would you try to hide it? Remember, your condition is followed by a laugh track.

Or think of the misuse of terms such as OCD and anorexia. Being neat and clean is not the same thing as having a real obsessive-compulsive disorder, yet we hear phrases like “My friend is sooo OCD, I’m afraid to walk into his house. I might track in a piece of dirt!” Regarding anorexia, every thin person doesn’t live with anorexia nervosa, yet we hear such things as, “She’s so anorexic!” in reference to a genuinely slender girl with no eating disorder at all. This misuse of terms makes light of the people who are living with real conditions that effect their everyday lives.

Sometimes people reference suicide. They might say, “I was so embarrassed, I thought I would kill myself!” This is extremely insensitive to all those living with real suicidal ideation and to the families of those whose loved one has passed away due to suicide. Yet, we still hear it.

Another term that is sometimes used to describe that a person has died by suicide is ‘committed’. This outdated term that a person ‘commits’ suicide insinuates that the person has committed a crime. This is not the case, yet many still use this term. The correct terminology is ‘died by suicide’.

We now know that suicide is the outcome of a complex set of factors reflected in the neurobiology of a suicidal person. The current data shows that mental disorders are present in over 90 percent of suicides in Western society, and many of these disorders are associated with biological changes. In addition, many other factors correlated with suicidality have well-described biological aspects. These include predisposing personality traits such as aggression and impulsivity, effects of acute and chronic stress, impact of trauma, gender, substance or alcohol abuse, and age.

From this information, there is no question that the language is way overdue for a change. I know of some individuals who say, ‘died by suicide’ due to anxiety and depression. This would seem to be the case for many who have died by suicide.

Not only can correct language reduce stigma, but it has the potential to save lives. Remember what I mentioned about hiding a mental health condition? This is due to shaming and stigma. If the stigma is lifted, many will seek help who would not have otherwise. Many lives can be saved by simply changing the language we use, day in and day out.

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