A Fighter For The Better Use Of Language

One of the voices most vehement in his opposition to the use of the word “stigma”, when it comes to dealing with people who have experienced the mental health system first hand, is that of Harold A. Maio. It was, therefore, refreshing to see his words in print featured in an opinion piece on the United Kingdom’s Guardian, headed aptly, We no longer talk about ‘the’ Jews. So why do we talk about ‘the’ mentally ill?

Presently popular worldwide is “the” mentally ill, a replica of “the” Jews. It is seldom recognised. In 2008 all nine US supreme court justices agreed “the” mentally ill existed. I shuddered; the US went silent. The entire country went dark and did not notice. An alley expression had reached the height of the US supreme court and journalism fell silent, neither seeing it, nor wanting to. Not just in the US, but worldwide. It is one of the prejudices I track worldwide on the net. I respond to each example.

If you follow stories in the media where the word “stigma” comes up in reference to people who have known mental health treatment, you will often find Harold Maio has written a sharply critical letter to the editor. It would certainly be helpful if more people took the time to chastise editors and journalists for their shortcomings in this fashion, and for this shortcoming in particular.

I trace one other prejudice on the net: “stigma”. It is closely related to the first. Once one has diminished a group to a “the”, one then claims for them a “stigma”, a “they”, a difference, eventually a deficiency. Establishing an “us” is one of the primary tools of prejudice, resulting in a “them”.

I’ve never liked the word “stigma” used in such instances either seeing it as a highly prejudicial word. As it means “a mark of disgrace” you start with a perceptual problem, you’ve identified the members of this set of individuals as set apart somehow from the rest of the population. In such instances, it becomes easier to ignore the common humanity that unites people, and it becomes harder to come to the conclusion that we are them, too, and they are us.

When I objected to the use of this word during a teleconference of psychiatric survivors and mental health consumers I was happy to find that most of those at the event were in agreement with my objection. They had a different reason for objecting though, and their reason was that it was a term they felt had been co-opted by people who didn’t share their aims and objectives. This word that might once have been their word at one time, was no longer seen as their word. It had become then, for these people who had been through the mental health system, a word that was used by a “them” against the “us” they represented.

The outcome of forced mental health treatment is usually not a very good one. The damage that is done to one is financial and social as well as possibly emotional. This socio-economic double whammy illustrates that the problem is systemic. While ex-slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule before the end of the American civil war, a promise the government renigged on, mental health patients are promised next to nothing on discharge from an institution.

Ignorance of the disruption that involuntary treatment entails is itself an example of prejudice in my view. Let us return to the example of propertyless ex-slaves, one thing they could count on was poverty. The predicament most recently discharged mental patients find themselves facing is similar. Add to this precarious state, just as with black people in this country, you have a group of people facing a great deal of prejudice. This prejudice contributes to making efforts to reenter the fold, so to speak, and move upward such a challenging, often self-defeating, undertaking.

I haven’t read it suggested that there is a “stigma” attached to mental health. People labeled “mentally ill” have recovered from the label. This word “stigma” is often used to refer to the way people treat people for whom recovery is thought to be beyond reach. This presumption, in itself, is an example of prejudice. There is a great deal of fatalism at work in this perspective. It is my feeling that when a person has received a psychiatric label, improvement should be the expectation. Resignation is, all too often, the tact encouraged by professionals who have failed their clientelle, and by a system that is too often based on managing symptoms rather than recovering stability.