Language Is Key to Easing the Stigma of Mental Illness

Public Figures Must Do Better in Their Choice of Words

Posted Jul 09, 2018

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It’s difficult to overstate the persistence or harm of the stigma of mental health issues for the 1 in 5 Americans who suffer from them and their families who care for them. In spite of the dedicated, long-standing work of individual activists and charitable organizations seeking to demystify and normalize mental illness and treatment, many individuals still choose to suffer alone and in silence rather than risk the shame and humiliation of being labeled mentally ill, “crazy,” or worse.

It’s hard to blame them when influential figures use powerful platforms to equate mental health conditions with such negative attributes as weakness, naiveté, and even stupidity. Just recently, Rudy Giuliani told attendees at a political rally that those doing their job of investigating President Trump are “Wackadoodles.” He further stated, with exaggerated wide eyes and hands waving around his head, that such individuals “need a psychiatrist” and “should go to Bellevue,” a hospital in New York City with a well-known psychiatric unit.

Such comments should not be taken lightly, excused, or brushed under the rug. Consider their impact on, say, an enthusiastic attendee at that very rally who might one day need psychiatric care, perhaps at Bellevue, to say nothing of those currently suffering from a serious mental health crisis—on either side of the political aisle.

As a former New York City Mayor, Giuliani in particular should be aware that beyond its well-known expertise in psychiatric care, Bellevue is a premier medical facility and, in fact, is designated to treat our nation’s presidents should they suffer a medical emergency while in New York. Bellevue Hospital has one of the most expert and dedicated medical and mental-health teams in the country.

Though that’s hardly the point.

Words are powerful. They matter. They instruct. When the short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci called Reince Priebus, the chief of staff at the time, a "paranoid schizophrenic," it served to make life increasingly difficult for those who are, or who love someone, schizophrenic, or suffering from other psychiatric illnesses. Such people have it hard enough. It is very, very challenging.

Suicide rates are climbing across the nation. Celebrity figures like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and before them Robin Williams, chose to end their lives despite supposedly having it all—including resources to hire the kind of mental-health resources that are tragically out of reach for most Americans. Their deaths illustrate the depths of the struggles endured by all those suffering from various mental-health conditions, from chronic depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia.

We must all aspire to do better. We must choose our words with care. We must believe those who tell us they’ve been hurt by inappropriate language, both purposeful and unintentional. And we must help bring others along to recognize this truth.

Those with mental illness and their families will attest to the everyday struggles that come with their condition. By simply focusing our attention and extending our compassion in a realistic and constructive way, we can help to address the facts and truths of mental illness.