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Language Choices and Stigma

Beth Hess - Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Last month we shared examples of stigmatizing language around substance use disorders and changes we can each make to our language to help combat stigma. There is also language around mental health disorders that is stigmatizing. We each have an opportunity to make changes to the words we use in describing people, disorders and treatment.

Some words jump out as being obviously derogatory such as “nuts,” “psycho” and “crazy.” These should be omitted from any use in our language.
Also, it is important to use “person first” language when referring to someone. For example:
  • “He is bipolar” should be replaced with “he is a person with bipolar disorder”
  • “Schizophrenic” should be replaced with “a person with schizophrenia”
“Seriously emotionally disturbed” was the stigmatizing term that was used to describe students with significant mental health needs who qualified for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act. Both parents and the youth themselves were deeply troubled by the use of this label. In 2010, the Maryland Coalition of Families worked with other advocacy organizations and the Maryland legislature to change the language used in Maryland regulations to the more accurate and less stigmatizing “emotional disability.”
It should also be noted that there is preferred language for both people with mental health and substance use disorders who are in treatment. Phrases like “non-compliant,” “resistant to treatment” and “in denial” are all accusatory labels and can be replaced by descriptive phrases, such as “is choosing not to…” and “is feeling ambivalent about...”
People with mental health and substance use disorders should be treated with respect. A large part of this is being mindful about the language we choose to use.


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