By Rachel Gill – September 13, 2011
In the United States, being labeled mentally ill has many consequences that ultimately amount to social inequality. Such a label has the potential to diminish an individual’s status, self-confidence; cause mental health problems to worsen; lead to alienation; isolation; imprisonment or even death. Culturally held beliefs communicate through, among other means, use of language. The focus here, language that marginalizes persons with mental disorders, is seen to be a major cause and reinforce-ment of stigma. Consider the following commonly used terms in American language. Are you out of your mind? That is insane. She is such a nut job. That is crazy. He is psycho. What a mental case. She is retarded. He is off his rocker, has a screw loose, not playing with a full deck of cards, etc. These typical phrases are often explained as being said jokingly and/or may appear harmless, but their affect, whether conscious or not, defines social attitudes, shapes public opinion, and influences how individuals perceive and respond to those unfortunately labeled mentally ill.
The idea posited here is that end of discrimination begins with individual choice. Currently, there are numerous political activist organizations, lobbying for various mental health rights and government reforms, however, the problem with this approach alone is that using consequential systems of governed authority to initiate change appears to be less effective than behavior reinforced by personal decision and accountability.
A comparative example enlightening this approach is the American civil rights movement. Even though the courts ended segregation and made racial discrimination an act punishable by law through the landmark case Brown vs. the Board of Education, the cultural reality of this judgment is still transpiring through a much more gradual and far less dramatic means. Such means include creating taboos for use of historically offensive language.
For instance, in America the N-word, refers to a now taboo word historically used to dehumanize and degrade African American citizens. By comparing this logic, one could reasonably see how and why words like crazy, insane, or mentally ill might reinforce negative stereotypes of people and maintain social inequality in a similar way.
Realizing a society without inequality is a gradual process that advances through social learning, interpersonal skills acquisition, developing thoughtful communication, mutual respect, and, perhaps, most importantly, individual accountability; it is not a dramatic or momentous historical event like a United States Supreme Court ruling or an act of congress. Rather, changing societal beliefs and behaviors slowly gains acceptance by transpiring from person to person until finally reaching the majority, sometimes spanning across several generations before effecting transformation. The development of language reflects this progression; this is the true definition of social change.
In the end, we only love what we understand and we only understand what we seek to learn. Therefore, in order to end stigma against persons with mental disorders, we must each be mindful of our language and find new, more accurate, less judgmental ways to describe issues of mental health, seek to educate ourselves and others to dispel myths, advance the science of psychology, and build healthy, peaceful, inclusive communities.
Do you have comments or thoughts you would like to share with the author about this article? E-mail Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org.