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Day Two: The Toxic Word ~ “Stigma” ~ Ban it!

I detest the word “stigma.” It makes my skin crawl because no one takes personal responsibility for it. I hate the way it sounds. I hate to even say it.

I prefer calling it the “S” word, but nobody knows what I mean because “stigma” is so ubiquitous and so convenient.

Do you know what  it means? Discrimination and Prejudice.

Add two more words to that definition: Fear and Ignorance. Negative Stereotyping. Unnecessary Barriers.

Get the picture?

There is no stigma. Just prejudice and discrimination. When you say the word “stigma” you actually incite “stigma.” Linguistically, it’s an etymological trick, a praeteritio. Nasty stuff.

Let us ban that word and call it by its proper names. Discrimination and Prejudice.

Perhaps then, people will take personal responsibility for their own attitudes and ignorance and fear and prejudices and discrimination. May even attempt to change their attitudes. Learn more. Understand more. Become more empathetic. Compassionate. Kind. Inclusive. Maybe.

But will anyone accept that their attitudes are prejudicial and discriminatory, that they have a problem? Perhaps by changing the language we can begin to change our culture, and our collective conscience? Am I asking too much?

Certainly, we, who live with our psychiatric histories, who internalize our diagnoses, seem to suffer the most as a result of these sick misguided prejudices and discrimination. This irrational fear and ignorance.

“Stigma” isn’t some black cloud, out there in “society.” The word is constantly misused and misunderstood.

Here’s some background on this blighted word…

Several years ago, my psychiatrist shared these insights with me. His term as president of the Ontario Psychiatric Association was ending and these were his opening remarks at a dinner honouring him. He had dedicated his presidency to fighting discrimination against people with psychiatric diagnoses and mental illnesses. They’ve informed my advocacy and activism around what I call “The Language of Respect.”

Where is the respect we deserve as “human beings?”

The word stigma is Greek in origin.  It referred to the practice of burning or cutting a mark into the flesh of criminals and slaves. This physical branding made their status apparent to all and identified the individuals as being of lower moral status. The stigma and prejudice surrounding mental illnesses are clear, quantifiable and profoundly problematic.

Scott Simmie, a journalist, in his book, The Last Taboo:  A Survival Guide to Mental Health Care in Canada which he coauthored with his partner, Julia Nunes, described an example of prejudice in which the sign on the lawn of a psychiatric hospital that read, ‘Dogs must be kept on a leash’ was defaced to read, ‘Nuts must be kept on a leash.’ The outrage was that for eight months it remained untouched and all winter the sign could be read by people passing on the street. No one did a thing. That would not have happened if the word Dogs had been replaced by the word Blacks, Jews, or Gays. The act would have been described as a hate crime and the sign replaced immediately.”

What this prejudice and discrimination does to a person…

Scott goes on to state that stigma for him was the most agonizing aspect of his bipolar disorder. It cost him friendships, career opportunities, and – most importantly – his self-esteem.  It wasn’t long before he began internalizing the attitudes of others, viewing himself as a lesser person.

I ask you. Is there any difference between this and the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear during Nazi Germany?

A Report on Mental Illnesses in Canada published by Health Canada in 2002 framed the problem in the following way:

  1. Arising from superstition, lack of knowledge and empathy, old belief systems and a tendency to fear and exclude people who are perceived as different, stigma and discrimination have existed throughout history.
  2. They result in stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger and avoidance behaviours.
  3. They force people to remain quiet about their mental illnesses, often causing them to delay seeking healthcare, avoid following through with recommended treatment, and avoid sharing their concerns with family, friends and coworkers.

We all tend to internalize our mental illnesses…

It’s one of the most serious impediments to our recovery. Some people find refuge in their diagnostic labels. And right now, I won’t even go into how the convoluted issues of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses and how it complicates and exaggerates these problems for us. That’s another story.

In this past weekend’s excellent special section on Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in The Toronto Star, one short article particularly resonated with me because I’m convinced that language makes the world of difference to those of us living with psychiatric diagnoses. We think in words. Words define our perceptions in many ways.

Words Matter…

The headline was An Evolving Glossary of Mental Health Terms where these vital points were made:

You are not your illness…

“You don’t say someone is cancer, you say someone has cancer,” says Frances Jewell, executive director of the Mental Health Rights Coalition. “So you shouldn’t say some is schizophrenic either.” (Or bipolar, for that matter.) People have illnesses and diseases, but their identity is not defined by it.”

This article made another good point about the linguistics of mental health.

On Suffering…

“Some people do not want to be perceived as suffering through an illness or as a sufferer,” says Peter Coleridge, national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association. “We find terms like ‘suffering’ and ‘asylum’ and ‘consumer’ negative. And we feel shameful and it causes us to feel like there’s a weakness,’ then we have to respect that and change our language,” Coleridge says.

I’m one of them. I do not consider myself to be “suffering” with my mental illness. I live with it. Some times are more difficult than others, but I am not suffering. I hate that word, too.

I am not ashamed of myself, nor do I blame anyone. And after all, according to the wondrous Houston-based research professor and social worker Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, “shame is blame turned inward.” How can you live and be productive if you’re harbouring secrets and shame, another awful word. That’s why I believe in being up front and open about my psychiatric history.

I’m not a survivor, either…

I hate labels. Of any kind. “Survivor” is a label I choose not to use. The only one that works for me is “human.” But this is a personal choice. You choose your label, if you wish. As far as I’m concerned, labels are for jars, not people. And they have a nasty habit of sticking.

What I cannot abide is being lumped into a category, like “the” mentally ill.” That is perhaps the most toxic work of all. Innocent little “the.”

Let us stop saying “commit” suicide…

“That hearkens back to a time when suicide was illegal,” Jewell says. The word ‘commit’ connotes a murderous, violent act. “It’s no longer illegal, so it’s not acceptable. Someone dies by suicide. They don’t commit suicide.”

To be continued…

Day Two: The Toxic Word ~ “Stigma” ~ Ban it!

Sandy Naiman

Sandy Naiman is a Toronto freelance journalist.

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APA Reference
Naiman, S. (2019). Day Two: The Toxic Word ~ “Stigma” ~ Ban it!. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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