A friend sent me a message the other day suggesting this subject for my blog. Her story: she had started to get up very early to go to the gym and, in response to this behaviour, someone said she was ‘mental’. She said she was very surprised by how deeply offended she was, even though she knew that no harm was intended.
I confess that I sometimes throw around these loaded words without thought: that’s crazy; you’re nuts; how insane is that? Once I began to talk about my own mental health challenges, I became a little more aware, but still slipped from time to time. When my son became ill, I think I became more sensitized to the power of these words. Each time I heard them used – loony, cuckoo, mad – I would see my son’s face and, while I hadn’t really noticed when it was just me battling my mental illness, I was suddenly upset on his behalf.
Like my friend, I believe people rarely mean harm. But, lack of intent does not mean the outcome is any less damaging. Words perpetuate stigma and stigma remains the key deterrent preventing people from seeking treatment.1 Add to that the discrimination that accompanies stigma. Research shows that just under 50% of Canadians think mental illness is an excuse for bad behavior. Only 1 out of 3 would continue to be friends with someone with a mental illness; that drops to 1 in 4 for someone with a drug use problem.2
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. If people are reluctant to befriend individuals with mental illness and addiction, just think about the impact on such critical areas as employment and housing. Dr. Heather Stuart, Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen’s University has proven that “stigmatizing views held by employers make it difficult for people with mental disabilities to enter the competitive workforce.”3 The Ontario Human Rights Commission cites negative attitudes as a barrier for individuals with mental health challenges in securing housing.4 Suddenly, that innocent comment appears in an entirely new light.
How can an individual possibly make a difference when it comes to stigma? There is no one right answer, but every person can contribute by simply choosing words more carefully. I try to educate with humour: when someone I know makes a comment like, “He must be crazy to go sky diving,” I say, “Well, you know that I know about crazy.” We both laugh, but the inference is clear. When it is someone who doesn’t know me (and my slightly warped humour) as well, I am a little less blatant. I might rephrase the comment with less charged words that express the same idea: “He is very gutsy to go sky diving; I don’t think I’d be brave enough.” I also try to educate without being preachy. I talk about my volunteer work and my personal experiences. I model person-first language with accurate terminology: I’m not a depressive, I am a person who lives with depression; my son isn’t bipolar, he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. They are little steps, but I know from my own journey of mental illness and addiction that small steps add up to incredible changes.
So, next time you find yourself slipping into those familiar phrases and words, I hope you will consider the bigger picture. Language is a beautiful thing, but it can be hurtful and damaging when not used carefully. As Robert Fulgham said in his book, All I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts…”
1 “Stigma remains key barrier to treating mental health”, The Globe and Mail, March 3, 2014 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/stigma-remains-key-barrier-to-treating-mental-health/article17195873/
2 “Stigma and Discrimination around Mental Health and Substance Use Problems”, heretohelp http://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/factsheet/stigma-and-discrimination-around-mental-health-and-substance-use-problems
4 “Human Rights and Mental Health (Fact Sheet)”, Ontario Human Rights Commission, http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/human-rights-and-mental-health-fact-
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.