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Don’t Misuse the Word Stigma

This column was written in response to a remark–“challenging the stigma of mental illness”–in County Executive Ed Day’s State of the County address.  

by Harold Malo

It is often through custom that we preserve prejudices. Arguing that there is a stigma to mental illnesses has risen to the level of custom. We mean no harm with it, we are merely reciting what we have been trained to recite. Much language devolves to custom.

The original meaning of the the term “stigma,” what dictionaries refer to as the “archaic” meaning, refers to a mark, a brand burned into the flesh of people held in slavery to identify them. And that is the meaning to which I hold. It is a mark, a branding. Today many dictionaries reference it as a “mark of shame,” but shame was an imposed judgement, not the intent of the term. Rather, identification was the intent.

Much of the usage today is euphemistic: What we do not fully understand, what we are largely ignorant of, we, through custom and ignorance, argue carries a stigma. Those six letters serve to maintain and preserve our ignorance.

“The stigma” of mental illness is an apt example: In arguing these illnesses carry a stigma, we treat those individuals as pariahs and we reserve our interest for finding their causes and cures, disregard the necessary inquiry, clinical research, and the funding for that research, preserving our ignorance.

Slowly, almost inexorably so, there is sign of change. We are moving from preserving that ignorance, to seeking answers. But the long redundant presence of the words “the stigma of mental illnesses” is interfering with those searches. The custom of those words is interfering with uncovering the medical solutions necessary to undoing them.

When I was a youth, polio raged throughout the world to the point that people raced to find cures. In that race, we found one. Language did not interfere with that pursuit.

In my thirties, I lost my mother to breast cancer, a then “unspoken” disease. Doctors overcame the “unspoken aspect,” the whispered “stigma,” and worked to find cures. As a result, we have made considerable progress toward discovering treatments. We even speak of cures.

Had we begun in the ’50s and ’60s to pursue knowledge about the several very serious illnesses we mistakenly call “mental” (another example of the harm of custom)–schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disease–how far we might have come. How many lives we might have saved, how much pain we might have avoided. And how much ignorance we might have overcome.

Harold A Maio is a retired mental health editor

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