A letter in response to an article I wrote for The Drum on mental health stopped me in my tracks. Language is critical in tackling prejudice.
Yesterday Harold A. Maio called out my use of language in an article that I'd written for The Drum about mental health in public relations. He’s a retired editor and lifelong stigma fighter.
Mr Maio makes the point that a writer should examine their own bias, avoid lazy descriptions, and call out prejudice and discrimination. I’m publishing his letter below in full with his permission.
“Removing the stigma around the issue of mental health." -- Stephen Waddington, The Drum, 9 March 2017
Once we used the term stigma it is a difficult prejudice to shake. But not impossible.
Assigned to rape for generations, an empowered Women’s Movement told us to stop, we had done enough harm. We stopped.
It was, of course a prejudice (the accurate term).
In its present guise it is precisely that, a prejudice we exercise rather than acknowledge the prejudice. It does considerable harm, but allows us not to acknowledge the reality, prejudice.
As a public relations tool it is very effective, it hides motive.
If you teach a stigma, you place your voice beside everyone who does. If you teach people who say there is a stigma, you raise your voice above theirs.
Some words for you to consider
‘Advocacy for’ is the positive use of language to achieve positive goals. It is measured by the frequency of positive affirmations, the infrequency of negatives.
As simple as that seems, recognizing the positives and the negatives in a society which confuses the two is often difficult.
The use of positives must be deliberate, constant, and consistent, for it takes many positives to overcome one single negative.
Although it is a rule of ‘advocacy for’ to present the positive, sometimes negatives are so well established, focusing on them can bring them clearly to peoples’ consciousness.
In the simplest, most common metaphors, lie the most powerful negatives.
Language does and don’ts
Avoid the intransitive verbs ‘are’ or ‘is’ and thereby avoid the offensive labelling of people as ‘schizophrenics’ or ‘a schizophrenic.’
Instead, use person-centered language and name the illness, such as “He/she has schizophrenia.”
Avoid the articles ‘the’, ‘a’, and thereby avoid ‘the’ mentally ill, ‘a’ depressive.
Use ‘person-centered’ language, such as ‘people with bipolar disorder’ or an ‘individual with depression.’
Avoid using adjectives that label people. Instead, use substantives, naming their conditions.
Avoid ‘mental illness.’ Whenever you can use the fully informative, specific diagnosis.
Avoid ‘mental illness’ in the singular. Use the plural, ‘mental illnesses’ as there are many.
Avoid ‘mental’ illness. Whenever possible, use illness instead. They are illnesses.
Avoid the innuendo "’stigma’, it victimizes. Use instead ‘prejudice’ or ‘discrimination,’ specifics which can be concretely addressed or redressed.
Avoid recounting ‘myths,’ as they are repeated in folk cultures well known, instead inform and educate to truths.
Avoid what is ‘not’ true, educate to truths.
Harold A. Maio Mental health editor Fort Myers, Florida
Choosing language carefully is important for writers and anyone in the public sphere. It’s absolutely critical when dealing with difficult issues.