We miss the signs of mental struggle others are going through because mental health stigma presents warped ideas of what mental illness and the people with it look like. If we're only looking for those that fit a certain mold when trying to pick out someone with mental illness, chances are we're going to miss those who are in a mental struggle.
Stigmatizing Words, Labels
The idea of mental strength often plays into mental health stigma. Out of the many ways we endeavor to encourage people through tough periods of mental illness, encouragement to use mental strength is pointless. Many of these ways are phrases or words meant with the best intentions, but they can also be potentially harmful — or at least I’ve seen the harmful effects they’ve had. Of the number of platitudes people say, one I get stuck on is “stay strong.”
Is it possible to destigmatize mental illness by refusing to use the word "stigma?" If you’re having a discussion about mental illness, it’s almost inevitable someone will mention stigma. When talking mental health, stigma refers to the misinformed perceptions and ideas about mental illness and those with it. It’s a big component in why people feel ashamed to have a mental illness and suffer in silence instead of seeking mental health treatment and understanding that mental illness is just an illness. Since there is still widespread misinformation, it’s not surprising the word "stigma" comes up often. What is surprising, however, is that there are those who say stigma does not exist, we should stop using the word "stigma," and I’ve even seen the claim that it’s offensive. Can we destigmatize mental illness by not using the word "stigma?"
Dehumanizing people with addiction is something many people do without thinking about it. For example, when someone says “addict,” there are probably a few images that readily come to mind and descriptors to go along with those images — crackhead, drunkard, nasty, degenerate, the list goes on. This is the stigma of mental illness at play as preconceived notions and dated ideas of what it means to have an addiction take over our perception. When we let that happen, we’re dehumanizing people with addiction. This happens with all kinds of addiction, too.
Using mental illnesses as insults is invalidating and harmful. These days, it’s hard to go far without coming across the topic of mental health and mental illness. Considering it’s still such a taboo subject that people shy away from, this seems like something we should be rejoicing over as advocates and activists — and I would, but for the fact that it’s still being spoken of in negative, stigmatizing words. Although people are mentioning mental illness seemingly more and more, all it’s doing it adding to the already existing stigma since mental illness is being used to insult people.
How we ask about a person's mental illness matters because language can stigmatize mental illness. At the core of stigmatizing mental health conversations, is the idea that mental illnesses are not real, legitimate illnesses. It’s one of the basics when talking about mental illness, and to some degree, it seems like we should be well past this statement by now. But we’re not. It’s not just naysayers of mental illness that make the mistake, either; in some cases, even those who have mental illness or know someone who does still don't know what to say to someone with a mental illness. They seem to want to think of mental illness as something other than a sickness and end up contributing to stigma in the questions they ask about a person's mental illness.
The idea of "normal" mental health affects me as someone who struggles with mental illness. I often fall prey to the idea that mental health is something I can only achieve by becoming more like “normal” people. In an age of health coaches and self-help gurus, it can be easy to believe that the ability to conform to a more widely accepted lifestyle is the answer to all mental health problems. Unfortunately, rather than offering a solution, the myth of normal mental health creates more stigma around mental illness.
Clickbait can increase mental health stigma. In the fast-paced world of the Internet, where everyone is vying for even a moment of attention, clickbait has become the way to get people to come to your page, even for sensitive matters such as people’s personal stories of mental illness. Unfortunately, sensationalism takes over and stories get warped to where they sometimes don't even reflect reality. In stories of mental illness, sensationalistic clickbait contributes heavily to stigma.
The terms "stigma" and "discrimination" are both used in the world of mental health. There have been debates surfacing about how to talk about people’s negative perceptions and behaviors towards both mental illness and those with mental illness. There are those who say we should stop calling stigma by that term and refer to it as discrimination alone, but, while the two terms are often linked, they are not quite the same thing and having stigma and discrimination separately is beneficial.
Success and failure are pretty common words in our everyday lives and they’re also prominent in conversations about mental health. When we see someone in recovery of any sort, we say they’re successful; we do this with ourselves, too. It’s often only when we’re acknowledging our own mental health recovery progress that failure comes into the mix. We feel like failures if we can’t succeed like those around us; we feel like failures if we have setbacks. It is because of that that I feel it would be better to remove the words success and failure from our mental health vocabulary.