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Stigma, Word Policing, and Targeting the Wrong Audience

Stigma, word policing, and targeting the wrong audience: graphic of dialogue bubbles & police badge

Stigma is a social phenomenon that encompasses stereotypes, prejudiced attitudes based on those stereotypes, and discriminatory behaviours. There are a lot of anti-stigma advocates, both organizations and individuals, focusing on word usage and what to say or not say about mental illness. This is sometimes referred to as language policing or word policing. Sometimes, those advocacy efforts target mentally ill people and how we talk about ourselves. Except that’s very much the wrong audience.

Stigma does not come from us, nor does it come from how we present ourselves. It’s about what society has chosen to Other. To change public stigma, the public needs to be the target, not us crazy folk.

In the first two paragraphs, I’ve already used two items off the word-policing no-no list: “mentally ill” and “crazy.”

Word policing’s war on adjectives

Person-first language says you can’t describe someone using an illness adjective, because in doing so, you’re reducing them to that, and only that. So if I say I’m “mentally ill” rather than a “person with a mental illness,” I’m supposedly feeding into stigma.

We use adjectives all the time. That’s how English works. I’m tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed, educated, intelligent, introverted, Canadian, curious, science-minded, left-brain-oriented, introspective, guinea pig loving, confident, well-travelled, and on, and on, and on. No one is likely to assume that if I say any of those things, I’m reducing myself to nothing but that, with no possibility of anything else, ever.

But if I say I’m mentally ill, stop the presses. All of a sudden, the English language stops working normally, and mentally ill is all anyone can see.

The grammar is exactly the same. What’s different is stigma; the nature of stigma is that the stigmatized characteristic is seen as subsuming all other identities. One is seen as that thing, and only that thing, until the end of time.

The idea that we should be telling people they have to speak differently about mental illness, or any other stigmatized characteristic, than they do about any “normal” characteristic is fundamentally flawed. Yet to choose a non-person-first approach may be condemned as feeding into stigma.

You can’t talk about suicide

If you consider all the contradictory rules from various different advocates and advocacy organizations (and there’s a lot of contradiction), you might wonder if it’s possible to talk about the topic of suicide without saying something that offends someone. Yet it’s so important that we do talk about it, both for those of us with personal experience and to get the conversation going more generally.

Among the terms that I’ve seen labelled as stigmatizing are committed suicide, completed suicide, suicided, suicidal, incomplete suicide, high-risk, at-risk, and vulnerable. It’s wrong to say someone is a victim of suicide, but at the same time, we’re not supposed to think there was any element of choice, and the person’s mental illness killed them in the same way COVID kills people. With so few ways of talking about suicide that everyone is okay with, how does that encourage anyone to talk?

There’s more on the issue of language and suicide in the posts “Committed Suicide”: Suicide-Related Language and Word Policing and Failed/Successful Suicide: Do Words Matter? What’s the Real Failure?

Planting ideas that weren’t previously there

There are a lot of people/organizations going around saying no one should say committed suicide, because that suggests that suicide is criminal. I have not yet come across a person who doesn’t react with some variation of “huh?” when the committed=crime link is pointed out to them. If it’s never crossed the minds of the people who do use it, and the most common stigmatized suicide stereotypes (like selfishness, harming others) have nothing to do with criminality, all of these advocates talking about criminality are forging and reinforcing that link in people’s minds.

Even more concerning is that this also creates and reinforces that link for mentally ill people. It tells them that whenever they see that language, it should be interpreted as a reference to criminality. It tells people to identify stigma where, chances are, none was intended, as if there wasn’t already enough blatant stigma to have to deal with.

It’s especially problematic if people are being criticized for using particular language when talking about their own experiences. Their message matters more than the innuendo that some people want to attach to their words. The fact that so many within the mental health community use words that someone, somewhere considers problematic is a pretty good sign that we need more talking and less word policing. We need to initiate more open conversations about suicide, not give people a laundry list of reasons to keep their mouths shut.

Changing the curtains doesn’t fix the foundation

Stigma comes from deeply ingrained social learning. It’s foundation-level, not surface-level.

Phrasing that’s accurate (like mentally ill) or conventional (like committed suicide) can be a problem if you choose to make it a problem. That’s the curtains of the house that built on people’s foundational attitudes.

Word policing is kind of like telling people to change their curtains but doing nothing about the rotten foundations. Telling crazy folk to change their curtains in order to fix other people’s foundations simply doesn’t make sense.

Attitudes matter

When people have positive attitudes about something, the nitty-gritty of word choices really doesn’t matter. If people with mental illness choose certain words to talk about mental illness, that’s not where stigma comes from.

When people have negative attitudes and you whack them over the head with their words, at worst, they’ll tell you to get lost, or at best, they might try to use your words in public to avoid being bitched at about their curtains, but not much else has changed. Or they might try to just avoid the subject matter altogether.

When people have positive attitudes and you whack them over the head with their words that were intended to be neutral, you may just be shooting yourself in the foot. When you whack crazy folk over the head with their words, it’s time to check your compass, because you’re facing in the wrong direction.

I’ve been reading a lot about this as I work on the chapter on language for my upcoming book. It’s a bit disturbing how many common advocacy approaches, including word policing, can actually make public attitudes worse. Maybe we need to worry less about the words mentally ill folk are using, and focus on generating conversations. And maybe we need to focus more on supporting each other and less on telling people in our own tribe how to talk.

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

Stop the stigma: Resources to challenge mental illness stigma

You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.

35 thoughts on “Stigma, Word Policing, and Targeting the Wrong Audience”

  1. You sum it all up in one sentence: “Stigma comes from deeply ingrained social learning.” The stigma is reinforced by generations upon generations of almost to definite criminal behavior toward people with mental illness including lifelong institutionalization and the realty of lost graves marked by numbers only and no names. See stories of hospitalization and 25,000 numbered graves at Milledgeville, GA hospital.

  2. Great post! I wrote an entire post stating my opinions about these kinda topics, except it was about Autism specifically quite a few months back. It could relate to mental illness, disorders or other similar things just the same! Thank you for bringing more attention to this as it is very important! Mine was less informative, it was more a matter of no one will ever tell me how to talk about my Autism, and more like just my ruthless opinion. xD

  3. The whole kerfuffle over “retarded” has pissed me off, and I’ve begun using it again. First, we DO NOT call mentally challenged people retarded now, so there’s no reason why we can’t use the word in other situations. Second, how is calling someone “retarded” for (example) making a dangerous driving move worse than saying he’s stupid or a jerk or an asshole? It’s not, and I’m done with being policed over it! I call myself retarded all the time for my clumsiness and dumb error. I try not to get offended at me… 😂

    1. I suspect that 99% of people who use the word retarded would never think of using it in the present day to refer to disabled people. People are always going to need words to describe doing things that make no sense, and and there is a distinct lack of words that aren’t potentially offensive to someone.

    2. I was quoting somebody in a news article as having said: “What — do they think I’m retarded?” Though those were her exact words, the editor said I had to change them. But if I changed them, I’d have been misquoting her. I wound up leaving out her quote entirely.

      1. Change them? That’s inappropriate. I just took a peek at the Associated Press’s policy on profanities and other offensive language. They say they’ll use them if it’s a direct quote and there’s a compelling reason to use them. Unsurprisingly, misquoting isn’t one of the options they consider. Even [r*****ed] would be better than changing the word.

        1. Well – that particular editor was 25 years old fresh out of a B.A. in English with her first “real” job. She may have been a bit unsavvy.

  4. Yes!!! 1000 times yes!
    This word policing attitude is infuriating and it drives me even crazier than I already am.
    If I can’t openly talk about my experiences without having to consult a thesaurus, then how can I ever help others stuck in the dark pits of depression relate and see a way through? Anything that’s overboard on the political correctness is tiring to read and even more tiring to write. It feels forced and it feels fake.
    Be respectful, sure, but it offends ME when I can’t use my own language to describe my own experiences without having to worry what someone who’s never lived a day of depression in their life thinks about it. *brushes self off and descends from the high horse*

  5. Nice, this is the first time I have heard this. I admit that I sometimes try to screen my words or reexamine my language output due to people’s direct or indirect, intentional responses. Now, my mind is clear and I am going to speak from my heart instead of watching every word of mine effortfully.

  6. I never would have made a connection between “committed suicide” and a criminal action. I just never ever would have conceived of this. Nevertheless, I was working on a not-yet-published reflection piece about someone I knew and I used “killed [oneself]” vs. “committed suicide”. But is that not allowed either because it suggests the person, not the illness, did the action? How else is one supposed to accurately describe cause of death?

    “War on adjectives” sounds almost humorous out of context. Like the writing advice about not using adverbs or something. But I think the adjectives normalize mental health conditions better than person-first language, in some ways. Why does “mentally ill” have to be treated any differently than “artistic”, “brunette”, “detail-oriented”, or “tall”?

    The policing of language bothers me in general. Yes, avoiding needless offense is a worthwhile goal, but I’m not convinced that the policing of language really does this, and it introduces a whole bunch of other problems.

    1. “Died by suicide” seems to be the most acceptable. Although that’s not even technically direct, as suicide is the reason for the death, but it was the overdose/whatever that actually caused it.

      I agree about normalizing. If people are expected to talk differently about certain things, that reinforces that those things are not normal.

      I think language use can be a problem if the intent was to offend, or if journalists or governments are using words in ways that simply aren’t accurate and serve to reinforce stereotypes. But in terms of trying to control how the average person talks, that’s probably an exercise in futility.

      1. I hear the point about journalism/gov’t.

        I think what I don’t like about “died by suicide” in the reflection piece I am writing is that it feels too passive to capture the shock of the event. It shouldn’t be – “died by vehicular accident” or “died by heart attack” are also shocking and sudden, but somehow it reads differently. Maybe that is my own bias. I suppose I will need to decide what is most important to me in this case – expression, technical accuracy, or non-offense.

  7. “It’s especially problematic if people are being criticized for using particular language when talking about their own experience. Their message matters more than the innuendo that some people want to attach to their words.”

    Problematic in my case (re: “homeless” v “houseless”) was equal to depression, insomnia, hurt, pain & infuriation all rolled into one frustrating bag. Here I’m talking passionately about actual lived experience, trying to get a message across to people who have not shared that experience, and somebody’s interrupting me to tell me I’m supposed to use the word “houseless” instead of “homeless?” Somebody who has NOT shared that experience? I’m still not quite over it, but I guess I can be thankful for the wake up — I’m sure there’s plenty more to come where THAT’s coming from.

    Excellent post, comprehensive, all-embracing. Sharing on Twitter and Facebook.

  8. No one other than the person who identifies themselves in some fashion should dictate the fashion with which that person is to identify themselves. One would think that is both common courtesy and common sense, but it only goes to show how far we have drifted from things sensible when it comes to the politics of identity.

    1. It’s very strange. It puzzles me that people promoting certain ways of talking in order to avoid pidgeonholing people are quite happy to pigeonhole anyone who doesn’t want to jump in their particular box.

  9. “Stigma”, one of my main gripes with society. I posted on my Facebook Page how talking about the so-called final taboo, death, is more acceptable than discussing mental health, WTF?? I really feel like it’s a huge no-no on Instagram but okay on WordPress and Pinterest plus a designated Facebook Page (@beborderlinestrong 🙃) where “there’s no family and friends”. HA!! Little does that person who told me that know because some of THEIR friends message and respond in the safety of my non-judgemental safe place 💜

  10. Oh, I didn’t notice that yet, at least not where I live but I noticed a lot how people use ‘mental health’ when they mean ‘mental illness’, even the manager of a care home where I was based use to write in official documents ‘if X displays signs of mental health his psychiatrist needs to be informed’.

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