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Stigma and Mental Illness: Exploring Derogatory Terms

Meloncauli is a former nurse and anxiety management therapist. She hopes everyone can take something away from her articles.

We have probably all been guilty of using derogatory terms to describe those who have a mental illness. We were conditioned as we grew up to look at people as either "normal" or "abnormal" based on their outward behavior and how they fit in with society's norms.

We may have heard a parent, friend, or acquaintance mock those with a mental health problem. We may have also heard appalling stories through the media of violence connected to someone with a mental illness. As members of a free society, we have the choice to accept or rebuff people based on our own personal reasons. The problem with stigma and mental illness is that discrimination inevitably follows; therefore, social acceptance is very important.

I would like to look at how mental health terminology and slang terms play a part in the wider picture of stigma, discrimination, and mental illness.

I have already used the term “mental illness." I use this term because it is widely accepted as the appropriate phrase—but it doesn’t sit well with me. We tend to accept this term because psychiatry uses it freely. We are usually told that being mentally ill means you have a chemical imbalance, or a genetic predisposition.

The fact is that psychiatrists know little about what is going on in the brain, and there are no tests for chemical imbalance. Despite this, most people do accept psychiatry; none more so than the sufferers themselves, many of whom rely on psychiatric medications. Those who do not have a mental health problem also rely on psychiatry, as most perceive the “mentally ill” as a difficult group of people who do not fit in, and need to be in some way controlled. In other words it makes for an easier life all round to have a psychiatric service.

Someone or some “body” has to stop these people from roaming the streets performing “crazy” behaviors, murdering people, talking out loud, shouting in public or exposing themselves? This is the picture ingrained in our psyche.

Many people who have a mental health problem are highly intelligent

Many people who have a mental health problem are highly intelligent

What Does “Mentally Ill” Really Mean?

There seems to be some confusion about whether the word “mental” points to the mind or the brain. For me personally, I always think of mental as pertaining to the mind. Our “mentality” is a result of how we think, respond and assimilate; an attitude or cognition. If it meant pertaining to the brain, wouldn’t we use the word cerebral? If we used the word cerebral, would that then point to an area of intellect? Of course it would, but the fact is that many people who suffer with mental illness are highly intelligent, articulate people.

Do you see how much confusion there is surrounding this basic term used in psychiatry?

We all think of illness as having a biological foundation and perceive it as sickness or disease. If you put the words “mental illness” together, you get:

  • Sickness of the brain
  • Disease of the brain
  • Sickness of the mind
  • Disease of the mind

It all sounds very serious doesn’t it? Given that psychiatry is based on a chemical imbalance theory, we tend to accept mentally ill people are indeed “diseased." This can act in favor of sufferers by indicating they are not to blame. It is when you consider that anxiety problems, a fear of an object, or a constant very low mood (depression) are termed mental illnesses; the definition does seem rather exaggerated to say the least. Reacting to a difficult point in your life with certain thoughts or behaviors sounds pretty normal to me! We would be rather wooden, unfeeling and empty if we didn’t react.

Is Depression a Chemical Imbalance?

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