Words have power: the stigma of labelling mental illness

Words have power: the stigma of mental illness labels


Labelling mental health and mental illness, and applying those labels to people living with mental health conditions – or even people who are just experiencing some symptoms at any one time – can be really harmful and limiting to people’s growth and their future life free of mental illness.

It’s really common to hear someone describe either themselves or someone else as a “psycho”, or that someone is “schizzing”, or even that their day has been “crazy”. Even experiencing some happy and some sad feelings in the same day for instance can be described as having a “bipolar day”, or if someone is a bit fussy and they like a clean house for example, they might describe themselves as having OCD, when they actually are just a bit fussy and house-proud.

Words have power. And the more we hear something, or say something, the more we tend to believe those things and take them on as truths.

For young people this problem is even worse.

Mental Illness Labels and Young People

When a study was conducted to investigate how young people perceived mental illness and which words or labels they use or have heard applied to people living with mental illness, they came up with over 250 of them!

The most frequently reported labels in this study included “disturbed”, “nuts”, “psycho”, “crazy”, and “spastic”. 

The researchers categorised these labels into five groups: popular derogatory terms (these were about half of the labels). Labels associated with a negative emotional state were the second-highest group. The third group showed how easily young people confused mental illness with physical disabilities, or learning disabilities, and just clumped them all together into one group of labels. The last two groups were much less common and were either terms associated with psychiatric disorders, or violence respectively.

The study also pointed out other research that shows that most young people in Australia who have a mental illness do not seek help. Despite this, about one in ten young people are affected by mental health disturbances and need help. The study concluded that the application of these labels, and the negative emotional reactions they induced in young people, is a big reason why.

The Gender Implications of Mental Illness Labels

Another study showed how the use of these labels, particularly when they were applied to women (in this case in the court system) can have adverse affects too. 

Women in custody cases and family violence matters are much more likely to be described as “crazy”, “hysterical” and “insane” than men are in the same situations and exhibiting the same emotional responses.

And these labels tend to not only stick, but also affect the outcome of legal proceedings against women. 

Mental Illness in the Media

The way that mental health and mental illness is described in the media doesn’t help either.

One study analysed how mental illness was reported in some of the biggest and most widely-read newspapers in the world. 

The results showed that most discussions of these topics were represented from a medical model perspective and used a lot of medical jargon followed by a more colloquial phrase after it. This worked to simplify the terminology for the reader, but also somewhat trivialised the conditions and the stories for those suffering.

When law makers, lawyers, and law enforcement officers were described in the same articles, they were often represented from a dominant and “well” perspective while the person whose illness was being described was the complete opposite, and were also often described as aggressive and as creating of victims, even if that wasn’t true.

Labels can be positive and negative

But mostly negative. While the application of labels can make these illnesses and conditions easier to classify and categories, and thus in some ways, easier to treat, the use of labels for mental illness is more often unhelpful and in some cases, downright damaging.

If you were speaking to someone who actually lives with real Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – the kind that is debilitating and confusing and traumatising – and you were describing how you wash your hands often and how you think that means you have OCD, how do you think that person feels about their own illness?

Which labels do you hear used every day that fit into these categories?


Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash   

References and Further Reading:

Assaf, E. (2020). Hidden Power: Journalistic Representations of Mental Health Labels. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Bilenberg, N. Petersen, D. J., Hoerder, K., Gillberg, C. (2005). The prevalence of child-psychiatric disorders among 8-9 year old children in Danish Mainstream schools. Acta Psychiatry Scandinavia, 111, 59-67.

Polari, A, Lavole, S. (2022, May 4). Labels like ‘psycho’ or ‘schizo’ can hurt. We’ve workshopped alternative clinical terms. The Conversation.

Sawyer, M. G., Arney, F. M., Baghurst, P. A., Clark, J. J., Graetz, B. W., Kosky, R. J., Nurcombe, B., Patton, G. C., Prior, M. R., Raphael, B., Rey, J. M., Whaites, L. C., & Zubrick, S. R. (2001). The mental health of young people in Australia: key findings from the child and adolescent component of the national survey of mental health and well-being. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 35, 806-814. 

Zaccour, S. (2018). Crazy Women and Hysterical Mothers: The Gendered Use of Mental-Health Labels in Custody Disputes. Canadian Journal of Family Law, 31(1), 57-103., May 

Nick Bowditch - The best motivational speaker in Australia

Nick Bowditch

Nick Bowditch is a motivational speaker, the best-selling author of Reboot Your Thinking and Actually, it IS all about me, and a therapist and coach. He is also a successful (and unsuccessful) entrepreneur, TEDx speaker, inspirational storytelling expert, blogger, podcaster, and a passionate mental health advocate. 

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