Words matter. Language is powerful. It shapes what we think and how we perceive.
“Seeing is believing,” as the saying goes, but it’s quite the opposite.
Believing is seeing.
What you believe is what you see. What you believe is your reality. With education, your belief system changes. Change your beliefs and the world becomes a different place.
Yet with mental health, our language is often misleading and toxic, inadvertently spreading misinformation.
I hate the word “stigma.” Every time I see it, I cringe. It’s imbued with negativity going back centuries to Biblical times and it’s used almost exclusively in relation to people with mental illnesses.
Linguistically, it’s a “praeteritio,” a negated negative. A rhetorical figure of speech. A writer or speaker invokes a subject by denying this subject should be invoked.
Here’s how our language can work on our minds.
Let’s say I ask you to think of a “short-necked pink giraffe.” You’ll immediately try to imagine a short-necked pink giraffe. You may even succeed in conjuring up such a creature in your mind –– though no such animal exists.
Now, here’s this same process. Different context.
In the 1950 California Senate race, Republican candidate Richard Nixon faced down New Deal Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in a debate. He stated: “I do not say my opponent is a Communist. I do not say that at all.”
That statement planted in the minds of the American public the notion that Gahagan Douglas was indeed a Communist, though she was the opposite. It effectively scotched her political career.
That was a negated negative. A subversive ad hominem attack. A device Nixon used to distance himself from his unfair claims while still bringing them up.
The word “stigma” works the same way. Subversively. It’s an ugly old word, with an uglier meaning.
By definition, a stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.
In medicine, although the term is no longer used, it is a visible sign or characteristic of a disease.
It originated from the Greek “stigma” as in a “mark made by a pointed instrument, a dot,” related to a stick.
In ancient Greece, slaves or criminals were literally branded with hot pokers to be made visible to the general public.
Today, using the word “stigma” automatically and unfairly victimizes people with psychiatric conditions, branding them with dishonour and shame. There’s the negated negative.
Yet people with mental illnesses don’t have the stigma. Society does.
Society has been branded by its own ignorance and fear.
Today, thousands of people with mental illnesses function fully in our society, actively engaging and making valuable contributions.
What if educational institutions, governments and the media stopped using the word “stigma”?
Why not call it like it is? “Prejudice” and “discrimination.” That’s what stigma really is and that can be addressed.
It’s about time.
Instead of mounting “anti-stigma” campaigns, start “education campaigns.”
Every time you see or hear the word “stigma,” it reinforces the negative, outmoded message that people who have experienced altered states of mind, emotional traumas, and psychiatric labelling should be “marginalized,” “branded” and “feared.”
This is inhumane. Unfair. Cruel.
Stop using the word “stigma.” Change the language. And beliefs will change.
The word “stigma” is like a “short-necked pink giraffe.” It’s imagined. It’s mythology.
And it’s damaging our public discourse on mental health that’s desperately in need of healing.