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Words are not neutral: We are people, not diagnoses

Ilustration © Sergi Balfegó

I’m writing this article thinking about friends and other people who are committed to our group, who often and inadvertently use words or expressions that create the stigma and the discrimination that we, people with a mental disorder, must suffer. This happens because usually, one doesn’t stop and consider on the effects that one’s words can cause.

For instance, have you ever considered the consequences and the ideas conveyed by saying “mentally ill person”? I guess not. Otherwise, you probably would not use such speech.

What’s wrong with the expression? The answer is: everything except the word “mental”. I will try to explain why.

First, and above all, we are human beings. With or without a diagnosis, we are human beings. If someone uses a label as a referring expression, the diagnosis is crystallized. If it’s not right saying “a leper” when we speak about someone who has leprosy, why do we find it acceptable to say “a mentally ill person” or a “schizophrenic”? If we do not want to employ stigmatizing vocabulary, we must always take into account saying first “a person with”, and then use the illness name.

Secondly, a person is never a diagnosis. Human beings are not defined by a single characteristic or condition; and still less so by a characteristic or condition that might disappear. At most, we “have”, “suffer”, “live” or “experience” a mental disorder, but we never “are” the mental disorder. No human being is an illness. Therefore, we must be careful not to use the verb ‘to be’, because the whole person will be defined according to a label. On the contrary, the verbs we should use should be the ones that imply a process or condition, instead of an essence: to have, to undergo, to live, to experience, etc.

Finally, generalizations must also be avoided, the kind of speech that regard all people with mental disorder as if they were basically the same. Each person is unique, with or without a diagnosis. If we don’t want to generalize, we should not use vague expressions like “mental illness”. Whenever it’s possible, the precise disorder and the particular person must be specified.

Generalizations, verbs implying essence, and the use of labels for naming people are linguistic usages that generate stigma and discrimination. Being careful with our vocabulary is a way of fighting for a fairer world for everyone of us.

Hernán Sampietro


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