When Diagnoses are used as Insults: Stigmatizing Language

If you watched any of the presidential debates, you would have quickly noticed that there was no shortage of insults. “Lunatic” and “nasty” are just some of the words that were being hurled at the microphones. One of the candidates’ choice of the term “bipolar” to describe the other’s changing opinion on a matter, was particularly noteworthy. I found it surprising that someone who is running for president used a mental health diagnosis as an insult, without any reservations about it.

The labeling didn’t stop there. It continued on after each debate night as those who watched the events took to the Internet to provide their two cents on their diagnosis of the candidates. A quick Google search including a candidate’s name plus “mental illness” will bring up a sea of headlines commenting on their mental health. This is problematic for a few reasons:

  • Using mental health diagnoses in a derogatory way to insult, or make fun of someone further perpetrates the stigma attached to mental illness.
  • Many of the people offering their diagnoses of the candidates are not doctors, and thus are not qualified to even make that call.
  • Whatever your credentials may be, medical diagnosis does not take place on social media or elsewhere on public websites. It takes places in the doctor’s office or an equivalently suitable environment. (Even the American Psychological Association has been urging its members to stop with the labelling of presidential candidates).

The same kind of behaviour can easily make its way into the workplace. And it really is sneaky - you don’t realize that you do it until you make a point to pay attention to your words.  Here are some statements that may sound familiar:

“One day he likes my work, the next day he doesn’t. My supervisor is so bipolar.”

“They ran out of tickets for the holiday party. I’m so depressed.”

“She cleans her desk every single week, she’s so OCD about it.”

If someone is using a diagnosis to make fun of someone or throws it into sentences nonchalantly, it can make those who are actually living with a mental illness feel like their illness is a not a serious thing. It is so easy to feed the stigma, but luckily it is even easier to change our words.

Instead of “bipolar”, try: erratic, inconsistent, changeable.
Instead of “OCD”, try: neat, meticulous, scrupulous.
Instead of “depressed”, try: sad, down, unhappy.

Let's all be mindful of the language that we use at work and elsewhere, it has the power to hurt or to help someone. 

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