The steps society needs to take in order to end the stigma that remains around mental health issues is increasingly big news. On the Time to Change website, over 86,000 people have specifically pledged to end mental health stigma and the same phrase made it into an election manifesto last spring. These are important milestones for everybody who wants to end the daily discrimination people with mental health issues endure - but we need to think about the language we're using.
I can't think of another group of people who are discriminated against where the word stigma is used. Imagine if we talked about the 'stigma' of being black or the 'stigma' of being a woman - there'd be outrage and rightly so. The first use of the word stigma in the English language was to describe a mark made on the skin by burning with a hot iron - branding, in other words.
Stigma is the action of one person seared onto the skin of another - the stigmatised are marked with a shame that isn't theirs to wear. Put it this way. Dave from your local pub comes up to you and says "I really like that Nigel Farage, he's a good bloke. I'm going to honour him with a tattoo - but I'm going to get you inked instead." What would you say - from a distance, after backing away slowly?
Talking about stigma victimises those of us living with mental health issues. It reinforces that there is something different or 'other' about us, when in reality the people with the problem are those who continue to insult us or dismiss our thoughts, feelings and experiences as wrong or unimportant. The attitudes of others make living with mental health issues even harder than it has to be. Many of us struggle to find work or to keep the job we have because no reasonable adjustments are offered to us and at times, we're openly abused and mocked. Every person with mental health issues has their own shocking story to tell about their treatment at the hands of the ignorant.
But it's not just about the times when members of society are proud to display their ignorance - if it was it would be so much easier to deal with. The appalling treatment of those of us with mental health issues is an insidious form of injustice that steadily eats away at our self-esteem until we doubt if we were ever as 'good enough' as other people. We retreat to exist within safe, non-threatening and very small lives, avoiding even everyday activities because of the shame we can feel simply for being who we are.
The words prejudice and discrimination place the spotlight back onto the person responsible. The shame is on them, as is the burden of responsibility for putting things right. These words make us reflect on our own behaviour and step up to the challenge of learning, understanding and changing for the better.
It's that simple. We should all be heartened by the idea that we can choose to end discrimination simply by the language we choose - and that by choosing to think in terms of prejudice instead of stigma, we make Dave get his own tattoo and live with the consequences.