Stigma is a four letter word.

My last post touched upon the responsibility we all have in ending discrimination of any kind. The idea that each day we can choose either peace or prejudice, simply by the language we use has remained with me ever since. I’ve had long periods of frustration where I haven’t been able to put feelings into words but despite these, I think my initial instinct has evolved into something concrete.

I am no longer going to use the word stigma.

We hear a lot about the steps society needs to take in order to end mental health stigma. It’s even made it into an election manifesto. I’m not demeaning these efforts at all – the work is much-needed and this is a personal choice for me.

The way I see it is that when we think about a happy event, we feel good. If a friend shares some upsetting news then we feel their pain. Ever dragged yourself through a day at work having had little sleep? If you couldn’t stop thinking about how tired you felt, the day will have seemed even longer. I know, I’ve been there many times, but what I’m getting at is how emotive language is.

So what happens when we talk about stigma? Who do you think about? Is your focus on the person responsible for the behaviour or their intended target? To my mind, using the word stigma places the spotlight of attention firmly on the person being stigmatised. The first use of the word stigma in the English language was to describe a mark made on the skin by burning with a hot iron – branding, in other words.

Stigma is the action of one person seared onto the skin of another.

The stigmatised are marked with a shame that isn’t even theirs to own. Put it this way. Dave from the pub comes up to you and says “I really like that Nigel Farage, he’s a good bloke. I’m going to honour him with a tattoo – but I’m going to get you inked instead.” What would you say? From a distance, after backing away slowly…

The words prejudice and discrimination place the spotlight back onto the person responsible for them. The shame is on them, as is the burden of responsibility for putting things right. They make us reflect on our own behaviour and step up to the challenge of learning, understanding and changing things for the better.

By choosing to think in terms of prejudice and not stigma, Dave has to get his own tattoo and live with the consequences.


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