Words That Stigmatize

“Since first being diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety in my early 20s, I felt the stigma of being considered ‘abnormal,’” remembered journalist and author Steven Petrow in a recent article in the Washington Post. Petrow often used to hear friends use pejorative words like “nuts,” “psycho,” “schizo,” “insane” and “looney tune” as general insults to anyone for any transgression. The not-so-subtle message he perceived: It’s okay to mock those with mental health issues—that “we are somehow weird, stupid, scary, or dangerous.”

Sadly, the stigmatization of people with mental health issues has a long history.

“Research on the stigma of mental illness has been fueled by interest in labeling theory. Once a deviant person has been labeled ‘mentally ill,’ argues sociologist Thomas Scheff, society responds in accordance with a pre-determined stereotype, and the individual is launched on a career of chronic mental illness from which there is little opportunity for escape.” wrote Colorado Recovery founder Richard Warner in his 1985 book Recovery from Schizophrenia.

Those stereotypes are largely still with us. And they are still exacerbating the mental health issues of many Americans. 

“Stigmatizing language can become a stumbling block to treatment and support and increases the likelihood of these problems worsening before treatment is instituted,” Petrow wrote in the Washington Post. “According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with mental illness don’t get help for their disorders because they fear being treated differently or losing their jobs.”

When the Warner model of treating mental illness is all about empowerment, stigmatization is all about discrimination and disenfranchisement. Recovery from mental illness is about more than just controlling symptoms and staying out of psychiatric hospitals. It is about regaining a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose in life.

Empowerment is essential if people with mental health issues are to overcome the prejudices that many Americans still carry with them: the stereotype that makes them believe a person with a mental illness is incapable, unpredictable, even violent, and worthless. 

Before his death in 2015, the late Dr. Warner noted that “popular television programs often depict people with mental illness as dangerously violent.” A 1992 study found that an astonishing 58 percent of respondents considered “lack of discipline” a cause for mental illness.  Almost three decades later, Petrow makes a similar point, noting how Piers Morgan, a British television personality, criticized tennis player Naomi Osaka after she quit the French Open for mental health reasons as “an arrogant spoiled brat” who was “weaponizing mental health to justify her boycott.” 

Gymnast Simone Biles didn’t fare much better after citing mental health concerns as her reason for pulling out of several Olympic competitions in Tokyo. “Media representation of the mentally ill have shown little improvement since the Second World War,” wrote Dr. Warner in The Environment of Schizophrenia (2000).

It may slowly be changing for the better now. Petrow’s niece, “a 21-year-old college senior, lives with generalized anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder but has made clear she does not feel stigmatized. Her grandmother, my mom, would be proud of her openness and that she has sought treatment at a relatively early age.”

When Petrow asked her about the mean-spirited words some directed at Biles, she replied: “The language of belittling it, just putting ‘mental health issues’ in quotes, that’s super problematic because it’s making a serious issue. You just can’t do that anymore. That’s not where we’re at as a society, at least not in my generation.”

Our modern, non-institutional approach to living with mental health disorders is focused on individual empowerment and provides the services needed to address schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other serious conditions. Call us at 720-218-4068 to discuss treatment options for you or the person you would like to help.