Many of the expressions and phrases we use when talking about mental health can cause discomfort. In fact, when we use words that gravitate around the stigma surrounding this subject, it can produce a disastrous effect. For example, without even knowing it, you might be encouraging an individual not to ask for help when they really need it.
Stigma-based language (for example, “they’re crazy” or “they’re depressed”) has a clear impact on diminishing the sufferer’s quality of life. It can be defined as ‘the attitude, belief and negative judgment toward individuals with distinctive health characteristics’. Indeed, words have practically unlimited power, both to do good and to provoke the most painful emotions.
“There is nothing more courageous than asking for help when you feel vulnerable.”
The impact of stigmatized language on mental health
An investigation published in the journal, Neuropsychopharmacology (Volkow et al., 2021) claims that, in the health context, professionals can, with their use of language, contribute to reducing stigma. It seems counterintuitive, but the use of technical terms and the imposition of complex clinical labels (for example, pseudocyesis) promote and further increase stigma.
Therefore, how professionals communicate in a health context can be a real vehicle for the chronification of stigma in mental health. It’s important to emphasize that the power of words is immense. In fact, we know that they’re linked to both the appearance of thoughts and the beliefs and certainties of patients (Volkow et al., 2021).
In recent years, mental health professionals have worked on reducing stigma at multiple levels of mental health. They’ve focused on both the individual and institutional level. However, despite this fact, the stigma surrounding mental health continues to intoxicate both everyday and scientific language.
According to a study conducted by the specialized journal, Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, stigmatizing language is one of the factors that makes individuals who need help avoid contacting mental health services. For instance, in the case of alcohol, the probability that an individual will decide to put themselves in the hands of a professional is 50 percent lower, compared to other patients (Hammarlund et al., 2018). We must change this.
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Guidelines for better communication and reducing the stigma of mental health
By using expressions and words that are scientifically accurate, the emotional and phenomenological experiences of patients with mental health problems can be accurately defined and validated. Indeed, using language well has a positive impact on treatment and on the professional-patient relationship. Moreover, these impacts are transferable to society as a whole (Volkow et al., 2021). Here are some guidelines.
“Even health care providers sometimes stigmatize people with mental illness.”
-Nora D. Volkow-
1. Professionals must take care of the language they use
Despite their arduous efforts to ignore and avoid stigmatizing messages, health professionals are only human and sometimes fall into the trap of biased language. When this happens, individuals who might be thinking of seeking psychological help may decide otherwise.
One way of helping in this context is found in research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, led by Cori L. Tergesen. The researchers conducted an experiment in which medical students watched videos of people with mental health problems undergoing treatment. It led to a reduction in the students’ subsequent use of stigmatizing language (Tergesen et al., 2021).
“It’s not the burden of mental illness that breaks families, it’s the stigma that surrounds it.”
2. Fighting against self-stigma
Language is so significant and important that it can often imply certainty where there’s none. For example, when an individual suffering from mental health problems repeatedly receives negative and stigmatizing messages, they ultimately believe their content. This is called self-stigma.
Furthermore, if the sufferer is conveying messages that gravitate around stigma, by using phrases like “I’m sick” or “I’m a problem” they must cease to do so. They should consult trustworthy people to obtain other points of view that allow them to change their beliefs. Self-stigma also reduces the probability that the individual will consult a mental health specialist (Jennis et al., 2015).
“Self-stigma has a negative impact on the recovery of people with severe mental illness by lowering their self-esteem.”
-Nora D. Volkow-
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3. Avoid focusing on the sufferer
Expressions in which the individual is merged with the clinical entity that they suffer from are common. For example, “You’re anorexic”, “You’re a drug addict” or “You’re schizophrenic”. But, the combination of the verb ‘to be’ and the noun depicting the ‘disorder’ acts like a Molotov cocktail. However, sufferers shouldn’t be defined by their illnesses. So, why, as far as mental health is concerned, does it seem to be the case? It has to stop. The dignity of sufferers should always be respected.
For this reason, it’s essential to use expressions that include the verb ‘to have’ instead of ‘to be’. Therefore, in place of the previous statements, we’d say “You have an eating disorder”, “You have a substance-related disorder” or “You have a psychotic disorder”. After all, their mental health problem is far from being their only characteristic. Nor is it the characteristic that defines them the most.
When we use language well, it gives us the power to transmit either hope or sorrow. Therefore, we must all ensure that we take care of the words we choose to avoid offending whoever we may be talking to.
“If language is not rectified, words do not correspond to meaning, and if words do not correspond to meaning, our deeds cannot be accomplished.”
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