It’s strange to think that the everyday use of language stigmatising mental health is especially common. Yet, as English speakers we have many idioms and metaphors that do this available to us, and the stigma that this kind of language reinforces is very real. When we discuss mental health, or someone with mental health issues, it is often in a decidedly negative way. An individual who has a mental illness is often described as going mad, losing their mind, or they are just simply labelled psycho. These terms are also often applied to individuals who have not been diagnosed with any form of mental illness, but who simply portray some kind of antisocial, unpleasant, or otherwise unacceptable behaviour.
Stigma, in its metaphorical sense, is a mark of shame that serves to stereotype and alienate an individual or group because they are associated with something taboo. It is the merger of three things – a lack of knowledge (ignorance), dissenting attitudes (prejudice), and exclusionary behaviours or actions (discrimination). For individuals living with mental illness, the experience that stigma creates can cause various challenges in everyday life. Stigma results in difficulties in gaining employment, in securing funding from various health services, and in acquiring acceptance in the wider community.
So why do we continue to use words stigmatising mental illness in everyday language? One could argue that we are not using them in an attempt to deride, hurt, or further stigmatise mental illness. Some may argue we are using them to describe behaviours that are ‘a little out of the ordinary’, and these behaviours just also happen to be stereotypical of the mentally ill. But that’s not really the case. We’re extending derisive terms for mental illness to other behaviour, not the other way around.
Nevertheless, regardless of intention, the issue remains that use of this language continues to shame, deride, and isolate individuals with mental illness from our community. While it may now be socially unacceptable to use the word gay to describe something unpleasant, to describe someone as wacko Jacko remains largely tolerated by the wider community. Indeed, someone using such terms may not ever have been pulled up for such language use. Slurs and derisive language based on race, sexuality, religion, etc., aren’t OK in mainstream society, but labelling an individual as off his head or being a few cans short of a six pack often isn’t even noticed as something that might be inappropriate. However, these words certainly do wound. So, before uttering what first comes to mind, we should all consider if there is a more empathetic way of expressing ourselves and we should think about whom we might be hurting when we use a certain word or phrase. Maybe then we can facilitate an open and honest discussion about mental illness, one that is neither shrouded in stigma nor covered in shame.
Erica Dodd is a full-time language lover by day and a part-time Genius by night. Her area of expertise is variationist linguistics, in particular gendered language use.
Mental Health Week runs from Sunday 4th to Saturday 10th October this year. If you want to learn more about events that are running or about mental health issues in Australia, you can visit Mental Health Foundation of Australia’s website for more information.