"On the "Stigma" of Mental Illness."
by Keith Young, LCPC, CH
June 17th, 2013

"There is no such thing as the stigma of mental illness."

It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?  I think if I'd read that at the start of my career, I
never would've entertained the thought.

But a phone conversation changed that for me.

I wrote an article some time ago that ended up getting published in the Psychiatric
Rehabilitation Journal in the year 2000.  It was a new experience for me, and I learned
some valuable lessons from it.  I learned, for one thing, that you don't get any
money from having your article published in a professional journal.  Don't get me
wrong, it's rewarding.  It's a feather in your cap.  It makes your mom proud.  But the
remuneration pretty much stops there.

I also learned that when you're about to be published, you receive a telephone call (or
at least I did) from someone whose job involves telling authors how they can make
their articles more 'politically correct' before they go to publication.  I don't think I'll
ever forget my conversation with this man.  He said he had read my article, which was
about assessment of vocational programs that helped people with disabilities to
return to work.  He then proceeded to explain to me how I could maximize the
chances that I wouldn't offend anyone with the wording in it.  

The conversation went something like this:

"Okay, let's get started.  You say 'those with psychiatric symptoms'.  Yeah, that
should be changed.  You should really say, 'those
people', there, instead.  Just the
word 'those' by itself is depersonalizing."

"Really?  Oh.  Um...okay."

"And here you mention, 'life functions'," he continued.  "That's not a good term,
with the word 'function' in it.  People are not robots.  The word 'function' may be
considered inappropriate."


"You also have a quote here, that could be seen as offensive.  Said by a consumer.  
She says, "You don't just go into a job interview and say, 'Hi, I'm a recovering
alcoholic with bipolar disorder, can I have a job?.'"
 Yeah, you should probably
change that."

"What?  But...but it's a quote.  That's what she actually said.  How would I even
change that?  It's, like, a done deal.  From the past.  Which can't be undone.  She
said it."

"Yeah, I know, but if you want, you can use those square brackets, right?  Where
you can enter your own words in place of hers when you write it?  You can replace
as much of the quote as you want, if you do that."

"Yeah.  Hey, don't take this the wrong way, okay, but do I need to take all of these

"Oh, no.  No.  You just need to listen to them."

"Great.  Please, continue."

"Right.  In this next section, you mention the 'stigma' of mental illness."

"Now hang on, right there.  I've seen examples of stigma more times than I care to
count.  I've seen it as a case manager.  I've seen it as a psychiatric rehabilitation
counselor.  I definitely see it as a therapist.  It's everywhere in society.  You can't tell
me stigma doesn't exist."

"That's exactly what I'm going to tell you."

"Okay.  Explain that."

"The word 'stigma', by definition, implies that there is actually something to be
ashamed of.  It involves an agreement between the discriminator and the one being
discriminated against that shame should be felt, and that there's a legitimate reason
for it.  Don't ever use the word 'stigma', in the context of mental illness.  Every time
you want to use the word, 'stigma', replace it with the word, 'discrimination.'  I
think you'll find that your statement will be much more accurate, and it will put the
shame exactly where it belongs."

I was speechless.  I wish I could remember this man's name, because I'd mention him
here and I'd give him full credit for saying it.  I remember that I thanked him and told
him that this particular suggestion resonated greatly with me.  

And from that point on, I never again used the word 'stigma' associated with mental
illness, except to tell this story.  Yes, as a society, we still have a way to go when it
comes to acknowledging, understanding, and showing compassion and support for
people living with psychiatric symptoms.  We still need to advocate and educate to
battle the discrimination that remains.  

But stigma?  Nope.  I'm very happy to report that I see none of it.
By using this website, you agree to the terms of use and privacy policy.
Copyright © 2018 Journeys Mental Health, LLC.  All rights reserved.
If you are experiencing a
crisis or life-threatening
emergency, please call 9-1-1
or the statewide crisis hotline
at 1-888-568-1112, or go
immediately to your local
emergency room.
Journeys Mental Health, LLC
Counseling and Hypnotherapy
Keith Young, LCPC, CH
175 Union Street, Suite C
Bangor, Maine 04401
Phone:  (207) 951-7811
Fax:  1 (888) 972-1920