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Stigma or Discrimination: Language Matters
October 6, 2015
by Kelly Davis, Policy and Programming Associate
A big word in mental health right now is ‘stigma,’ but many advocates and consumers do not think this is the correct word to use in the context of mental health. Stigma campaigns focus on raising awareness to remove individual blame from mental health disorders, increase help seeking behavior, and show just how common these disorders are. Critics of the campaigns come from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs but almost all agree that stigma is not the appropriate way to describe what is happening.
Individuals with mental health disorders who are categorized as having emotional disturbances for the purpose of obtaining Individualized Education Plans have the lowest high school graduation rate among all disabilities. People with mental health disorders experience staggeringly high rates of unemployment compared to the general population. Instead of access to services, we see massive rates of suicide, incarceration, and homelessness. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, restricting the rights of individuals with disabilities from access to “the same opportunities [as others] to participate in the mainstream of American life” is discrimination.
With discrimination comes prejudice. Prejudice is “an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed towards a group or an individual of that group.” We do not talk about the stigma associated with being a part of other groups that are protected against discrimination like sex, religion, or race. We call speech, action, and inaccurate portrayals of these people prejudiced and hateful.
Stigma campaigns are valuable in that they create a space for much needed conversations on mental health. They help people feel less alone and increase exposure to other people, ideas, and statistics. In addition to these efforts, though, we really need to talk about discrimination. When we look at the abysmal access to services, housing, education, and employment opportunities for a protected class of people, we see discrimination.
Stigma conjures up the image of the indelible scar on the individual. Discrimination tells us that it is on society as a whole.