Stigma or Discrimination: Language Matters | Mental Health America

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Stigma or Discrimination: Language Matters

by Kelly Davis, Policy and Programming Associate

A big word in mental health right now is ‘stigma,’ but many advocates and consumers do not think this is the correct word to use in the context of mental health. Stigma campaigns focus on raising awareness to remove individual blame from mental health disorders, increase help seeking behavior, and show just how common these disorders are. Critics of the campaigns come from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs but almost all agree that stigma is not the appropriate way to describe what is happening.

Individuals with mental health disorders who are categorized as having emotional disturbances for the purpose of obtaining Individualized Education Plans have the lowest high school graduation rate among all disabilities. People with mental health disorders experience staggeringly high rates of unemployment compared to the general population. Instead of access to services, we see massive rates of suicide, incarceration, and homelessness. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, restricting the rights of individuals with disabilities from access to “the same opportunities [as others] to participate in the mainstream of American life” is discrimination.

With discrimination comes prejudice. Prejudice is “an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed towards a group or an individual of that group.” We do not talk about the stigma associated with being a part of other groups that are protected against discrimination like sex, religion, or race. We call speech, action, and inaccurate portrayals of these people prejudiced and hateful.

Stigma campaigns are valuable in that they create a space for much needed conversations on mental health. They help people feel less alone and increase exposure to other people, ideas, and statistics. In addition to these efforts, though, we really need to talk about discrimination. When we look at the abysmal access to services, housing, education, and employment opportunities for a protected class of people, we see discrimination.

Stigma conjures up the image of the indelible scar on the individual. Discrimination tells us that it is on society as a whole.




The distinction between stigma and discrimination is a good one,. It's relatively new to me, this is only the second time I've read about it. I know that I have experienced discrimination due to my bipolar...

While the words 'stigma' and 'discrimination' are not synonymous, they are very closely related. To say someone has been discriminated against or stigmatized is pretty much just a matter of semantics. They imply the same thing.
The last line is simply not true. Stigma does not = indelible scar, nor does is describe harm to a singular person. Discrimination does not imply a group.
I'm sorry, but article just doesn't make any real point about the two words. It makes a stab at an 'abysmal lack of services' with no back-up information. It's just a mess.

As for the previous 22 years of my life living with a bipolar disorder I have also had several severe medical conditions. On point to this statement, there is a lot of discrimination going on in our medical community. For every medical symptom you have it's diagnosis is mental illness. I agree with the goal to change the label stigma to discrimination. Maybe then will people dealing with mental illness be able to state that they're lack of medical care is discrimination and not to be told it's all in your head.

I have bipolar disorder, and I honestly don't care what word you want to use, be it stigma, discrimination, or prejudice. I only care that people understand more about the illnesses and that we should be treated with respect.

Exactly the type of discussion needed on stigma and MH Conditions. It is a huge problem that runs deep in people's attitudes and mindsets. It is very similar to sexual or racial prejudice. It is an assumption a person has certain behaviorial characteristics based on a diagnosis.

Thank you!

Thanks for the read! Very insightful!

When the Ashley Madison hack occurred, the resulting suicides were the result of stigma. When a medical clinic’s database was compromised and the HIV status of its patients released, the fear and distress experienced by those affected were the results of stigma. And when a bipolar worker has a mental breakdown in the workplace and a video of the incident winds up posted on social media, the harmful results are due in no small part to stigma.

Of course, we all harbor prejudices, and sadly, society is rife with discrimination. And programs that seek to lessen or eradicate harmful forms of discrimination are important.

But when society focuses its discriminatory attitudes onto a group or individual, thereby labeling and stripping the victim(s) of a healthy identity, the very real result in our digitally connected world is stigma.

The indelible mark conjured up by the word stigma is absolutely apt, until stigma victims are free of its debilitating affects. I believe that’s why, when The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts (NAMI) partnered with the state’s most influential business leaders to help promote mental health awareness in the workplace, they called it “CEOs Against Stigma.”

- Kevin Hogan is the founder of Healing Stigma ( and co-author of Healing Stigma: A Survivor’s Guide to Repairing Identity in the Internet Age.

You can say that stigma and discrimination is a matter of semantics,but that is not true for mental illness. There are no laws against having a stigma against persons with mental illness. There are laws against discrimination and hate crimes. And that is the point. For people with an illness it extremely helpful when we share and educate to seperate the the management of the illness and the obstacles presented by stigma and self-stigma. To read, see and hear people on the many internet blogs describe their illness and the responses like, "OMG, that's me too". That is us helping us.
But when we address the issues of our cultural and political reaction (or lack of it) to the epidemic that is mental illness. It is very appropriate to use the words discrimation and hate crimes. As a group in general the afflicted, parents and family we are very empathetic and docile. The HIV movement did not come to such a rapid improvement in treatment without an aggressive coordinated effort. This resulted in such an increase in funding for research. I would go further and suggest that mental illness and drug addiction are mirror one another in the way our society reacts to them. The only difference is the leadership (politicians) get votes by continuing suggest they will win the "War on drugs".
I continually here that one in four persons experience mental illness. That together with family and friends amounts to a large number of voters. We ask for funds and improvements. When we begin to demand our rights to be protected against discrimination and hate crimes then we may see a reduction in the numbers imprisoned, homeless, without access to services, without jobs, etc. No, I think discrimination and hate crimes are appropriate words in a society that is able to turn away from persons with mental illness

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