Day in and day out, whether I am watching TV, perusing the news feed on Facebook, reading The Huffington Post or the local newspaper, to name a few, I watch in dismay as story after story are reported using stigma laced language. I find myself wondering how this can be.
In fact, last Friday on Facebook I saw an NBC news article titled “Oregon man walking cross-country to honor his dead son gets killed on Colorado highway…” While reading the article I came across the words “committed suicide” within the first sentence. Sadly, the now late Joe Bell lost his son Jadin to suicide. His son did not commit a crime as the words lead us to believe. Rather, he died by suicide.
Furthermore, on Friday evening, while watching one of the “48 Hours: Burning Suspicion” episodes on CBS News, I continually heard the words “committed suicide” throughout the news segment. Sadly, in the episode I watched, a beautiful, young mother died, and it sounds like we may never know the cause of her death. In regard to possibility of death, murder and suicide were discussed. Of course the word suicide was repeatedly laced with the word “committed.” Do we have to blur the lines even more by using the words “committed suicide?” These two words, that we are inundated with on a continuous basis through the media, may seem harmless. However, when they are used in combination they are potentially harmful. When my loved one attempted suicide she was very ill. She was by no means a criminal. Unfortunately, the misuse of language continues to perpetuate the stigma that surrounds mental illness even though anti-stigma warriors are working diligently to bring about awareness.
I’m certainly not the first person to make note of language in relation to stigma. Countless others before me have brought this topic to light. For example, Tom Smith, President of the Karla Smith Foundation, noted in his blog post titled “The Language of Suicide” that when we use the word commit in relation to suicide “…our most common phrase about suicide pre-judges the person as guilty” (Smith, 2012). The loved ones left behind already have indescribable grief to contend with. Stigma laced language can only add to their pain. I don’t know about you, but I want to support and lift up whomever may be experiencing sorrow such as the families that are left behind when a person dies by suicide. Don’t you? The last thing I want to do is use insensitive language which can be damaging and is needless.
Therefore, I encourage you to do a Google search of your own and type in the words I am talking about. When you do you will see a number of articles populate that are dedicated to this particular topic. Of course I have provided just a few examples of the stigma that I have heard. Can you imagine how vast this problem is if I am talking about only a few words? This blog post could go on forever if I attempted to write all of the examples of stigma that I have heard both in my personal life and in the media.
With all due respect, are not the media personalities we are listening to highly educated? Are not the broadcasting companies and media personalities we listen to educated about using sensitivity when communicating with their viewership? How does this happen when there are organizations such as Bring Change 2 Mind, the Karla Smith Foundation and the National Alliance on Mental Illness as well as numerous others that exist in large part to erase the stigma of mental illness? Even musicians like Jennifer Hudson are talking about mental illness. You can see her in the PSA titled “It’s Time to Take Action” on the NAMI website. With anti-stigma warriors like Glenn Close, Tom Smith and Jennifer Hudson on the front-lines how can such injustice exist? Unfortunately it does, and it needs to be addressed by everyone if we are truly going to break down the walls of stigma.
The question I find myself pondering is, “How do we bridge the gap between the media and the anti-stigma warriors?” I believe that on all levels we first must admit that such injustice exists. It is not enough that medical and helping professionals alike must acknowledge and learn to recognize stigma laced language, but also our media must acknowledge it as well! To do so otherwise seems ignorant! By admitting to the language insensitivity that exists and learning how to recognize it we can begin to at least think about what we say before we say it. I like to believe that if we can think it then we have a responsibility to change it, especially if we know that it may be detrimental to any person whether mentally ill or not.
Interestingly enough, the stigma surrounding mental illness has been addressed for decades. Therefore, we are and have been talking about stigma. But are the news giants like CBS and NBC news as well as numerous other news giants listening? Are they openly acknowledging that stigma exists? Are they attempting to learn how to recognize stigma? I imagine a future where the gap has been bridged between the media and anti-stigma warriors and where they join together to combat stigma and support persons with a mental illness and their loved ones. I challenge the news giants to rethink the language that they use and join anti-stigma warriors like myself in using sensitivity when communicating with the public and the world at large. It ultimately affects us all!
What have you heard in regard to stigma laced language? Do you notice a pattern? What are your thoughts on how we can end the stigma? I encourage you to check out Tom Smith’s blog on the Karla Smith Foundation. His “The Language of Suicide” blog post includes ideas on how to “…erase the phrase…” (Smith, 2012). Also, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website has an advocacy webpage filled with ideas on how you can advocate for change. NAMI also has a “How You Can Help” webpage that is currently displaying the “Time to Take Action” campaign. Additionally, check out Bring Change 2 Mind. You might be able to glean some ideas there as well.
Smith, T. (January 1, 2012). The language of suicide. Retrieved from http://blog.karlasmithfoundation.org/the-language-of-suicide/