Language and Stigma: The Objectification of Mental Illness

Language and Stigma: The Objectification of Mental Illness

Despite all the talk and “chatter” on the internet to put mental health issues at the forefront of social reform and make the crisis more visible, reformers continue to fail. Let me be frank, “normal” folks are unaware of what a mental health diagnosis means for people. 


The unwarranted fear, paranoia, discrimination, and untoward hostile attitudes held against people carrying a mental health diagnosis. 

Stigma exists and is very alive today. The original aim of this conversation was to arm allies with the information to disarm stigma in the mental health system. 

As the writing unfolded, this feat proved more difficult and less convincing as I re-read my article. The insidious and covert nature of stigma not only rendered my talk here moot. Utterly beguiling when conceptualizing how to unearth the issue from from the mental health system. I hope to at least supply readers with an accurate breadth of knowledge on how stigma manifests in society and what to do to disable its polarizing and misleading insidious powers to conceal violent “isms” and make them so challenging to identify and eradicate. 

“He’s crazy, she’s bipolar, he’s manic.”


Language; Wording

Creating a Culture rife with Healthy Stances towards Mental Health 

We’ve heard these famous sayings–fueling misunderstanding in our lives. For the most part, we listen to them do not interject or intercede when these violent misuses of verbs and abhorrent adjectives make people the object of ignorance. But is ignorance a license to ever be hateful? No. is ignorance even an explanation for this misuse of language? I would hazard to say ignorance is not an explanation and not the reason language continues to be misused when it comes to talking about mental health and people we objectify with a so-called mental health disorder.

Misinformation continues to objectify people with a mental health diagnosis. What do I mean by objectifying? In Edward Said’s words– contesting the notion of nation-state and identity politics. I am appropriating Said’s application of how language works and applying it to the mental health community crisis and those who have faced discrimination because of their “disorder.”

How people identify and, in turn, identify with “others” is a dangerous walk on the slippery slope to objectification. ‘Othering’ serves to not only create an object of hatred but also of people’s discrimination. 

“Othering” divides us. 

‘Othering’ people with a diagnosis from those who do not carry one is a slippery slope to objectification. Sure, some of us benefit from labeling and having a diagnosis. People can use this information in small healthy doses to read up on their issues and learn more about how many others struggle. 

But othering has a negative and insidious side too. Othering not only serves to characterize people with a mental health diagnosis as different, but it can AND is a mechanism to divide us up amongst ourselves as peers or people in the mental health community.

I hear it all the time. We even use language to describe our shortcomings as if we need or even should supply our fellow peers with a humorous anecdote to explain away normal behavior:

 e.g., “I must have been crazy! What was I thinking?”

There are several strategies to change how we use language to disarm stigma at the same language level. One of the simplest methods is inserting the verb “to be” when talking about a diagnosis. As in: “I am a person with a bipolar diagnosis.” There are many ways to rethink the uses of language.

Nobody’s mental health is perfect. I don’t even know what perfect means when it comes to health or wellness. Remember, even the “healthiest” people have strengths and weaknesses. Even which practices are the best, or the healthiest is always up for contestation. Using the most vital methods in our lives and within the culture, we create at every community level. 

Why, then, is society so adamant and vigilant to discriminate against people carrying a so-called (un)-and/ordisclosed mental health diagnosis? 

I am suggesting invisibility and transformation permit radical new methods of objectification. Unquestionably, these lenses permit only one way of seeing or conceptualizing illness. The impact of the ‘devices’ limit people’s potential with a diagnosis and restrict them to a subordinate role in society in broad strokes. 

Objectification has been mobilized to create and propagate lies and other “isms” for far too long and must be stopped at all costs if we are even to disarm stigma in its tracks.

J. Peters

J. Peters

Max Guttman '08, MSW '12, is the owner of Recovery Now, a private mental health practice. Through his work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, therapist and disability rights advocate, Max fights for those without a voice in various New York City care systems. He received a 2020 Bearcats of the Last Decade 10 Under 10 award from the Binghamton University Alumni Association. Guttman treats clients with anxiety and depression, but specializes in issues related to psychosis or schizoaffective spectrum disorders. He frequently writes on his lived experiences with schizophrenia. "I knew my illness was so complex that I’d need a professional understanding of its treatment to gain any real momentum in recovery," Guttman says. "After undergraduate school and the onset of my illness, I evaluated different graduate programs that could serve as a career and mechanism to guide and direct my self-care. After experiencing the helping hand of my social worker and therapist right after my 'break,' I chose social work education because of its robust skill set and foundation of knowledge I needed to heal and help others." "In a world of increasing tragedy, we should help people learn from our lived experiences. My experience brings humility, authenticity and candidness to my practice. People genuinely appreciate candidness when it comes to their health and recovery. Humility provides space for mistakes and appraisal of progress. I thank my lived experience for contributing to a more egalitarian therapeutic experience for my clients."
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