One in five people experience a serious mental illness at some point in their lives. In addition to confronting daily struggles associated with mental illness, many people also experience mental health stigma. Stigma is a product of media messaging, hateful politics, and human fears, biases, and assumptions. Stigmas devalue and discriminate against people with mental illness. Stigmatizing messages suggest that people with mental illness are exaggerating their symptoms, or not working hard enough to overcome them. Or that mental illness is caused by character or personality flaws. Mental health stigmas promote inaccurate and incomplete understandings of people. And they define people by their mental health.
Mental health stigma extends to people of all ages, including children. Children with emotional and behavioral problems may find themselves being blamed at school for their mental health symptoms. School staff or classmates may give them negative labels: “difficult,” “avoidant,” “oppositional,” “out of control.” They may be punished and excluded from group activities in school or in their neighborhoods. The more these sorts of things happen, the more likely it is that a child will begin to feel ashamed. Because they begin to believe the negative things that people are saying about them. Eventually children begin to self-stigmatize, which negatively impacts their self-esteem and confidence.
There are many ways to fight mental health stigma, including raising awareness. Parents, caregivers, and others who care for and work with children, can also fight mental health stigma by using destigmatizing language.
What is stigmatizing language?
Stigmatizing language is any language that serves to create or reinforce social stigma or self-stigma. One example is using vague, sensationalist language to characterize someone who has mental illness. “Crazy.” “Psycho.” Another example is characterizing a child with emotional and behavioral challenges in negative ways, either directly to the child or to other people. Talking in this way about children with mental illness contributes to negative stereotypes and blame. Implying that children’s mental health symptoms are intentional or fully within their control also contributes to child mental health stigma.
Another way that people contribute to mental health stigma is using a mental illness or behavioral challenge as an adjective. “A depressed man.” “An oppositional child.” This is a very common language pattern. Many people who use illnesses or disabilities as adjectives to describe people are not aware that they are contributing to stigma. Because of this, even people who care deeply for children with emotional and behavioral problems may find themselves using this type of language.
Examples of destigmatizing language
There are three key components of destigmatizing language: (1) person-first, (2) whole-person, (3) strengths-based. Person-first language is just what it sounds like — instead of beginning the description of a person with a mental health term (“anxious student”), it begins with the person (“student who experiences anxiety”). This simple and intentional language construction puts the emphasis on the individual, instead of the illness. Whole-person language is language that recognizes the multiple identities and talents of every person. It does not require naming every interest, skill, and achievement of a person every time you refer to them. But it is important to avoid using language that limits a person to one single aspect of their experience or personality. And strengths-based language focuses on a person’s hard work and resilience in the face of challenges. It recognizes that every person has strengths.
Benefits of using destigmatizing language
Using destigmatizing language has benefits that ripple outward from individuals to the communities and societies that surround them. Restructuring language so that it is destigmatizing opens the speaker’s world to the strength, humanity, and wholeness of people who live with mental, emotional and behavioral illness. It encourages people with mental illness to recognize their strengths and their whole selves. And it opens minds in the communities where we live and work. Destigmatizing language guides assumptions away from limitations experienced by people with mental illness and towards the potential of every human. Especially for children, in their formative years of identity development, destigmatizing language can spark a lifetime of self-acceptance and strengths-based thinking. What begins as a thoughtful way of speaking develops into a kinder, more mature way of thinking that embraces the beauty and complexity of the people around us.