Stigma and Language

The art of the politically correct is to substitute new words for old words when the old words are contaminated by a “stigma” that makes them undesirable. The goal of substituting the words is to eliminate the stigma by changing the language. See this article here, where apparently it’s better to refer to the mentally ill as “people with mental illness.” Which is patently ridiculous, because if you need to go to the trouble of saying “people with mental illness” to remind yourself that the mentally ill are people… you are the problem. Not undocumented others who don’t use sensitive language like you do, and to combat some kind of ethereal “stigma” that’s never actually defined. Meanwhile, persons with mental illness get some feel-good vibes but no actual, you know, help, like extra funding for psych ward beds in hospitals.

The reason that this plan is ridiculous on its face (besides not actually addressing any specific alleged stigma) is that it has been done before and failed. People have not been referring to the psychologically abnormal as “mentally ill” for all of history. The term “mentally ill” itself was a more empathetic replacement for terms like “lunatic,” “insane,” and “crazy.” Yet somehow now there is a stigma attached to the term “mentally ill”? You mean the social engineering that was meant to turn psychological problems into things of no more social significance than an easily-beaten bacterial infection didn’t work?

So why should changing the term “mentally ill” into “people with mental illness” be any different? Its main purpose is to serve as in-group signaling for the self-righteous liberal to whom intentions, not results, matter most: “I care about this issue. People who care about this issue use this language. Anyone who doesn’t use this new language is guilty of not caring enough. Shun the nonbeliever!”

Literal, on the shunning. It’s sadly predictable how liberals respond to disagreement with first attempting to “debate” to convince you to change your mind, and if you prove recalcitrant, go directly to the threat of out-grouping. “If you persist in disagreeing with me, shut up or I will unfriend you.” Daring to contradict the beliefs of the liberal is grounds for being outcast.

Even if both people presumably want the best care for the mentally ill. And both want to alter social policy so that the mentally ill are better cared for by society. Disagree with the liberal feel-good-I-care position? OUTER DARKNESS. Accusations of “You don’t care!” How dare you disagree with me! (Insert claims of personal significance to prove “caringness.”)

You know what? I have been “mentally ill,” myself. And having some moron spout off nonsense like “people with mental illness” instead of using the far more efficient “the mentally ill” does absolutely nothing to actually cure mental illness. Somehow referring to “the mentally ill” is “othering” and sticking “people” into the phrasing helps that? Quit with the moral preening and put your effort into educating people on how to look for signs of mental illness and how to approach different types of mentally ill persons – and how to get them help. And which local laws might prevent you from giving them the help they need, so you can figure out how to agitate for political change. Stop patting yourself on the back for allegedly “lifting stigma” by changing the way you speak. The truly mentally ill won’t care. An inability to respond appropriately to outside stimuli is one of the hallmarks of mental illness. Changing reality to fit the perceptions of the insane is NOT HELPING.

If there is a problem with some kind of “stigma” associated with mental illness, that wasn’t addressed by the previous terminology change from “the insane” to “the mentally ill,” what makes anyone think that changing it to “people with mental illness” is going to do the trick? The crazy people do need help, but changing what we call them is not actually delivering any help to them. If there are non-insane people who possess some kind of negative attitude toward mental illness, wouldn’t it be better to (a) describe the stigma, (b) figure out why the stigma exists (because stigmas do not appear arbitrarily out of the ether – they are based on facts. Perhaps the facts are incorrect and the stigma could be eliminated by correcting the common knowledge!) and then – only then – could (c) “ameliorate the stigma’s effects” take place.

There used to be quite a stigma against mental illness, after all – if you were deranged, there were no cures, and your family would hide you away, perhaps in some terrible institution where nobody cared about you and performed all sorts of nasty experiments on you in search of a cure. Nowadays? How many people are on antidepressants, again? Quite a few, yeah – and they run happy pill commercials on TV! Wow, looks like something sure changed the historical stigma against lunatics, when nobody would even talk about it in public. And it wasn’t changing the terminology that did the trick. It was finding a way to help them. The invention of psychotropic drugs that could, in fact, “cure” some types of madness changed lunacy from a mysterious, permanent condition into something more like a disease that could be efficaciously treated. Thus, the term “mentally ill,” describing the insane as the victims of disease and implying hope of medical treatment.

The same thing happened to the stigma against promiscuous women. Oh, sure, the feminists are never sure whether or not they’re retaking the word “slut” or not, because there is still some stigma attached to promiscuity. But we’re a long way from the days of the red letter “A.” Why is that? Artificial birth control, antibiotics, and legal abortion. Without the life-altering consequences of sex looming over women every time they had intercourse, suddenly it was far safer to be a slut. You could do it without putting yourself at huge risk. A lot of the stigma evaporated. There are still negative consequences to being promiscuous, though, so a bit of stigma remains. Not because of terminology (oh confused slut-walkers) but because there are still real-world biological negative consequences to casual sex, and those consequences happen to fall more heavily on women than on men, which is why there is a “double standard.”

So in order to defang the alleged harmful “stigma” against the mentally ill, rather than trying to (yet again) change the terminology (which didn’t work last time, apparently), we need to pursue avenues of practical improvement to the real-world conditions. That means figuring out which forms of mental illness are caused by what: environmental factors? Hormonal imbalances? Other chemical imbalances? Social factors? DNA defects? Birth abnormalities? Combinations of the above? And if “the mentally ill” is not a good term for discussing psychological abnormalities because it’s too broad, perhaps we might usefully subdivide different “mental illnesses” by class and give them different names. Depressives that aren’t a danger to others; ones that are. How to help them – because you’re going to need two different approaches. How to help the vast number of mentally ill homeless, some of whom might be able to lead productive human lives if they were corralled into institutions other than jails, ones designed to give them extra structure, purposes to achieve, and keep them on track. Which would not only help them, but would ensure that the general public doesn’t feel threatened by the crazy folk.

Because there’s one real source of stigma against the mentally ill – let them wander around raving until they hurt somebody and then throw them in jail, and you ensure that the sane people who live in homeless-crazy-people-dense areas are going to be really prejudiced against the mentally ill, because the mentally ill people threaten them. That’s above and beyond the instinctual reaction of “ew, disease” which can be overcome by compassion… but is far easier to overcome when there’s a practical treatment for the disease. Otherwise it tends to be the leper colony for the ill, simply for the protection of the well. Every time some poor man or boy goes off the deep end and shoots up someplace in the process of committing suicide, the stigma against mental illness gets a little stronger, because the mentally ill are a threat. One which is not being effectively dealt with by public policy. Rather than engage in elaborate in-group signaling rituals by changing vocabulary, how about we address the problems of insufficient funding and a legal environment that prevents the mentally ill from being compelled to take their meds… until they commit a crime. After which, there are innocent victims, a lot of bad feeling, and crazy people in jails which are NOT the right places for them.

And hey, while we’re at it, let’s talk about the stigmatization of masculinity and the high levels of male suicide too. Instead of bothering about whether it’s better to say “the mentally ill” or “people with mental illness.” Because those of us who have been mentally ill or know mentally ill people are well aware that they are people. We don’t need to remind ourselves of it. And the pc-crowd’s insinuation that all those “other” people need reminding is insulting, quite frankly. And hypocritical to boot – isn’t the whole point of changing the name supposed to avoid out-grouping? And here they are inventing new ways to out-group a new section of humanity!


About pancakeloach :)
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