4 Ways to Improve the Mental Illness Stigma

Society has come a long way in terms of how we view and treat those with mental illness. Before the enlightenment in the 1800s, the disease was thought of a lack in character or even a demonic possession. Instead of a physical disease as we now know it, it was labeled as a “spiritual disease”. The mentally ill were often locked up, institutionalized, or socially outcasted. Perceptions of mental illness have especially improved since Depression was medicalized in the 1920s and even more so in recent decades as more research has been conducted. (There has historically been a lack of research due to stigma and lack of understanding).


However, social stigma still exists and affects those suffering from mental illness. There is evidence of it in our everyday language, such as how casually the word “psycho” is thrown around.


Listed are 4 simple ways that we (as individuals) can change the discussion around mental illness to improve stigma:


1. Avoiding phrases like “I’m depressed” or “I’m feeling Bipolar” to describe mood.

Using the word “depressed” to describe our current mood minimizes the word for those who have depression. Yes, most humans feel “depressed” in their lifetime as it is a natural reaction to stigma in our environment. Major life events such as the loss of a loved one can cause bouts of depression as well. But Depression the disease is a prolonged feeling of sadness and hopelessness due to imbalanced chemicals in the brain. Using it to describe a bad day can be harmful for those who endure constant feelings of sadness or hopelessness because it minimizes their illness.


2. Omitting words like “Psycho” from our vocabulary

The word “psycho” has a direct connotation with mental health and psychiatrics due to its root, “psych”. It is often used to describe behavior that is erratic or abnormal. However, it is an ableist word that immediately labels the person that it is being used to describe as inferior due to their mental state. The word is indirectly harmful to those who suffer from mental illness because of how often it is thrown around in conversation (often used to describe individual behaviors VS. someone with a mental illness) and how little the word is thought about or explored, causing it to lose its true meaning. Because of this, the word immediately implies that those with mental illness are inferior humans. Of course, that is not exactly the intention of those who use the word since it’s generally used to describe behavior. Not only is it indirectly harmful to those who suffer from mental illness, it is also used to undermine whomever is being described by it. When someone is labeled “psycho”, their words and actions are generally not taken as seriously. Let’s do our best to avoid this word in general. (I think the world would be a MUCH better place!)


3. Saying someone “IS” bipolar VS saying they “HAVE” bipolar

We don’t say that someone “IS heart disease”. They HAVE heart disease. Talking about mental illness this way is harmful because it further perpetuates the idea that those suffering from mental illness are defined by their illness. Saying that they “have” bipolar (or another mental illness) helps separate the two.


4. Saying “Died by Depression” VS “Died by Suicide”

Suicide is of course very complicated. Using the word suicide as a cause of death implies that the individual died by choice, which is not exactly the case. Those affected by mental illness are suffering from a chemical imbalance in their brain that inhibits their thinking and wellbeing.  Many even describe feeling intense yet unexplainable physical pains. When someone dies from Heart Disease or Diabetes, we don’t question the cause of death or say that it was caused by their lifestyle habits. Avoiding the word suicide and replacing it with the mental illness the individual suffered from helps take away the connotation that their death was not due to their illness.This is overall more accurate and can help ease some of the stigma surrounding suicide.


Of course, most don’t mean any harm when speaking this way, but it’s important to be aware of the indirect impact that our language can have on those suffering from mental illness. 


Change CAN start with you. Small changes in our everyday dialogue can make a big change for those affected by mental illness and the stigma surrounding it.


Words: Lily K


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