It is about the words we choose to use.
A disabled individual constantly hears “retarded,” and while the word isn’t used directly to insult someone who is mentally retarded, the common and literal use carries the same connotation and reinforces the stigma that the individual is different, in a negative way, compared to the majority.
The same can be said with “that’s gay.”
Conversations are occurring to address this issue, but breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness is in its infancy and remains a conversation that is not occurring as often as it should, according to experts in the field.
Amanda Bulris, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said, “I hear a lot of, ‘Why can’t they just get over it?’”
She spoke at an ongoing Brown Bag series sponsored by NAMI and Behavioral Health Service North. The topic for that series was: “The Words We Choose: Stigma.”
Bonnie Black of BHSN said stigma can be lack of respect and the unwillingness to value other human beings.
“A lot of the words we choose are based on our opinion and false information,” she said.
She recalled watching a football game when an announcer said, “That team is definitely schizophrenic.” She couldn’t believe her ears and left the room.She also cringes when she hears people exclaim someone is driving them crazy.
“Identify your emotion and say you are frustrated,” Black said.
For someone suffering from a mental illness, it can be difficult to hear the illness tossed around negatively and cruelly.
“People have a disease that is not well understood,” Black said. “We are just beginning to talk about mental illness.”
Much of the problem is it is not understood and people either doubt the illness or are frightened by the symptoms.
She and other speakers stressed that it is an illness, like any other. Black encourages people to put physical illness before mental illness.
“Mental illness is like having a broken leg,” Black said.
For example, a physical aliment of the heart causes issues associated with having a weak or damaged heart. The brain is just another organ, except it handles thoughts and behavior, so a defect or illness in that area could impact thought and behavior, or any other brain function.
Bulris said that stigma specifically means mental health.
“We need to educate,” Bulris said.
Black suggested that educators spend time on mental illness when students are in eighth grade.
She further stressed that teachers have the responsibility in the classroom of correcting language. Perhaps the language doesn’t hurt the majority of students who are privileged not to suffer from a mental illness, but for the children who are afflicted, the stigma can be emotionally painful, even abusive. It is also likely to affect individuals with family members diagnosed with a mental illness.
Panelists said Hollywood and the media do not help the situation when they sensationalize aspects of mental illness and only play up the dramatic symptoms.
“We are going to chip away at the stigma by changing the conversation,” Black said.