Home / Resources / Mental Health Awareness – How language used can contribute to stigma

Mental Health Awareness – How language used can contribute to stigma

 

It’s widely acknowledged that awareness regarding mental health is improving.  There is a lot more coverage in the media, household names have helped by speaking out about their own experience, and story-lines are regularly written in to television soap operas and dramas which help raise awareness of mental ill-health.  This has led to people being less afraid of broaching the topic which is great – however, there is a but that we need to be aware of and it’s a big one.

Words and terminology are creeping in to our everyday vocabulary, alongside other well-established language, which are incorrect and aren’t helping to reduce the stigma, sadly in some cases experts feel they are contributing to it.

Recent joint research from Mental Health First Aid England and the health insurance provider BUPA discovered that almost half of UK adults are describing themselves incorrectly, with “schizophrenic” and “autistic” being common examples.

When talking about themselves, women are more likely to give an incorrect strapline to describe their mental health, whilst men and those aged under 35 are more likely to use the same phrases as a slur.

Using the terms ‘psychotic’, ‘schizophrenic’, ‘special needs’, ‘autistic’ and ‘bipolar’ outwith their medical health context was found to be offensive amongst those surveyed to produce the report.  Casual usage of these terms can stigmatise those who live with such conditions and cause isolation rather than offering a supportive environment which they deserve.

There is broad debate and understanding of what is good or bad terminology.  All language is evolving but, in general, it is not helpful to use language that denotes the person has become their diagnosed disorder  e.g. “she’s bipolar”, “I have a schizophrenic living next door”.

This isn’t just a British issue; the American Psychological Association have produced guidelines to help journalists write about mental illness and suicide.  Using a couple of the above terms, the preferred language would be ‘has a diagnosis of schizophrenia’ or ‘is living with schizophrenia’ rather than ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘has bipolar’ rather than is ‘bipolar’.  In America it’s known as people-first language. The aim is to create awareness, so we stop labelling people by their illness and first acknowledge them as a person before describing their condition.

It is important though that people are comfortable enough to feel their way with language in each unique conversation, being authentic and taking the lead from the person they are talking to, communication and understanding being the key.

Some terms are so deeply embedded in our everyday vocabulary that we use them without thinking of their accuracy or impact.  Recent celebrity deaths have resulted in dialogues such as,

“Did you hear **** committed suicide?”
“Really, why would they do that? They seemed to have it all.”

As our expert trainer, Christine Clark, explains:

“The term “commit” suicide is ingrained in people language when it comes to suicide and it will take time for it ever to disappear completely.

The history of suicide legislation is very interesting and it is clear to see that we have made significant progress over the last 50+ years since this offence was removed.

Most people when they understand that it comes from a time when taking your own life was classed as a crime, like commit murder or commit an offence, can see that this is outdated and try to modify their description.

‘Died by suicide’ or ‘made a suicide attempt’ are evolving new ways that we can have relevant conversations in this sensitive area but it’s important to gently cajole this change and not stifle conversation for fear of offence.

Suicide flourishes in ignorance and silence and we will only progress when we can explore, learn & evolve together in a supportive way.”

All our mental health courses include a discussion around how everyday language can contribute to the stigma of mental ill-health to help attendees be mindful of the terminology.  You can view the courses we offer here.

If you would like to do some further reading around this topic, you may find the following articles of interest:
It’s time to stop using these phrases when it comes to mental illness
When suicide was illegal
Speaking of suicide – Language matters: Committed Suicide vs Completed Suicide vs Died by Suicide
Suicide and language – why we shouldn’t used the ’c’ word

Recent articles on our blog....

A black and white keyboard with the word newsletter and an envelope image replacing the enter key

Spring 2024 newsletter includes a movement tip & other resources

May 28, 2024

The latest edition of our quarterly workplace wellbeing newsletter includes a movement tip for working hours and many other resources.

Read More →
A row of well thumbed cream coloured paper folders

Workplace wellbeing resources – some helpful recent additions

May 16, 2024

Our latest collection of external resources to help workplace wellbeing includes guidance and recommendations relating to a range of topics – autism employment, ensuring EDI is for everyone, information sharing in mental health emergencies at work, menopause in the workplace and women at work.

Read More →
Group of people working around a desk beside a cork board with coloured notes

Why we should focus on minimising employee illbeing to aid workplace wellbeing

May 16, 2024

This post begins with some research which concludes that efforts to improve wellbeing at work are directed too narrowly. It then goes on to highlight some courses that can help employers looking to minimise employee illbeing in the workplace. They present opportunities to explore strategies that can enhance a culture of psychological safety and trust.

Read More →

Testimonials

ineq-about-us-150x150

Our purpose is to provide training and consultancy services to enhance resilience, health and wellbeing in the workplace.

ineq-ethos-values-150x150

Differentiation is one of the most strategic and tactical activities in which companies most constantly engage

ineq-faqs-150x150

It's natural to have questions about training and how it fits with your organisation. Our FAQs can help you find out more.

ineq-case-studies-150x150

View case studies for some of the in-house training courses we have delivered to different types of organisations across the UK.