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3TS Blog

Words Matter: Mental Health and Stigma

Green Ribbon

October is Green Ribbon Month.  The focus of the Green Ribbon Campaign 2020 is to raise awareness around mental health stigma and discrimination. Despite progress made over the past decade, stigma surrounding mental illness still exists within our communities.  This stigma is a barrier to help-seeking and to managing mental ill health. Yet the way we each react to or talk about mental illness and the things we express publicly through media, social media, at home or in the workplace can make a difference.


What is Stigma?

Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Mental health stigma arises when negative labels are used to identify others as different because they have a perceived mental illness.  Discrimination in this context happens when someone treats another in a negative way for the same reason.  Social stigma and discrimination can make mental health problems worse and stop a person from getting the help they need.

Why does mental health stigma exist?

Mental health stigma almost always stems from a lack of understanding rather than from information based on fact.  It doesn’t always come from others but negative attitudes or beliefs towards mental illness are unfortunately more common than they should be in 2020.

Sadly, these negative attitudes can be reinforced across the media by:

  • Portraying inaccurate stereotypes about people with a mental illness
  • Sensationalising situations through unwarranted references to mental illness
  • Using demeaning or hostile language

For example, in some contexts, the media associate mental illness with violence.  That then fuels the myth that all people with a mental illness are dangerous. In fact, research shows people with mental illness are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.

Why we need to work towards reducing stigma in our communities

Stigma discourages people from both seeking help and from offering help to others. Like most health problems, mental illness is easier to treat if diagnosed and recognised early. So in this way, stigma also makes recovery harder. 3Ts recent research conducted in partnership with Trinity College School of Nursing and Midwifery examined people’s experience of attending the Emergency Department with suicidal behaviours and/or self harm.  The study identified Stigma as central to the negative experiences that many people face when seeking help for suicide or self-harm in the Emergency Department.

Through this study, ’Otherness’ was a recurring theme that participants reported.  They were often “made to feel ‘different’ from others in the ED presenting with physical health problems”. They were made to feel less “deserving” and felt a sense of otherness which led to individuals feeling stigmatized compared to those presenting with physical health issues.

Stigma is dangerous because it enables discrimination. Fear and ignorance about mental illness makes it harder for people with a mental illness to find support, sometimes even to find work or a place to live or to simply be accepted as a member of society. People who suffer with mental illness have reported being treated as less competent or less capable after revealing they have a mental illness.

How you can help eradicate Stigma

Society starts with each of us.  So, there are little things we can each do help reduce mental health stigma in society. The language we use when communicating about mental health plays a big role in keeping alive stereotypes, myths and stigma. So, being aware of the words we use around mental health is the most effective way to combat this stigma and help work towards a more inclusive and compassionate society. It is important that both organisations and individuals consider the words they use to discuss human behaviours and topics related to mental health.

So choose your words carefully. Focus on the person, not the condition. Remember the basic concept that a mental health condition (or physical or other condition) is only one aspect of a person’s life, not the defining characteristic

Preferred language

Terminology that suggests a person is different to other people

  • I am glad that you have sought treatment and support
  • We don’t usually treat people like you


Language that sensationalises mental health and reinforces stigma

  • A person is ‘living with’ or ‘has a diagnosis of’ a mental illness
  • Terms such as ‘they are mental patient’, ‘nutter’, ‘lunatic’, ‘psycho’, ‘schizo’, ‘deranged’, ‘mad’


Labelling a person by their mental illness

  • They ‘have a diagnosis of’ or are “being treated for” anorexia
  • ‘They are an anorexic’


Descriptions of behaviour that imply existence of mental health or are inaccurate

  • Their behaviour is eccentric or erratic
  • Using words such as ‘crazy’, ‘deranged’, ‘mad’, ‘psychotic’


Using slang words about treatment can undermine people’s willingness to seek help

  • Use accurate terminology for treatments e.g. antidepressants, psychiatrists, psychotherapists or psychologists, psychiatric hospital.
  • Using words such as ‘happy pills’, ‘shrinks’, ‘mental institution’


Terminology that suggests a lack of quality of life for people with mental health

  • A person is ‘being treated for’ or ‘someone with’ a mental illness
  • Referring to someone with a mental illness as a ‘victim’

3Ts Online Resources

To learn more about a variety of mental health issues, 3Ts have produced a series of videos plus a library of online self-help booklets.  These cover a range of common mental health topics and are useful as a ‘first step’ towards understanding. They provide the tools to help yourself or help someone in need. Our Self Help booklets are written by clinical psychologists and include key cognitive behavioural techniques to help manage common mental health problems. Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of high quality self-help materials in the treatment of mild to moderate psychological problems.  Visit the Need Help section of the website for videos, self-help library and more. 


Help reduce mental health stigma