Psycho, crazy, insane, mental, deranged, nutty, hobo, junkie, addict, alcoholic, druggie, down and out.
We all know the terms, some of them may even creep into our vocabulary at times, but whether used trivially or not, each one comes with stigma attached. More often than not, these negative associations aren’t based on lived experience, they’re based on the narrative we’re sold through the media, books and tv.
What is stigma
I recently attended a brilliant and thought-provoking conference hosted by the Guernsey Health Improvement Commission that explored the impact of stigma, on individuals and at a societal level, and the role stigmatised language in the media plays in this.
Now, the media can’t be held solely accountable for creating stigma, but they do play a significant role. My academic background was in behavioural science so indulge me while I slip in some theory to explain this… When there is a group or individual that we aren’t familiar with – such as people with substance use disorders or mental illness, we look for signals about what to think about those people. Those signals can come through media, and can at times be biased, sensationalised, and inaccurate. This informs our judgement about the controllability of the behaviour and therefore how responsible the person is for their actions, which affects how we feel or behave towards them – sometimes motivating fear, avoidance and discrimination. This is called the Attribution Theory.
We’ve worked with the Commission for a number of years supporting them with Count 14 – a campaign aimed at promoting the low-risk drinking guidelines. Throughout this time we’ve become super mindful about how we communicate, making sure our message and language is inclusive, non-judgemental and sensitive. But until the conference, I hadn’t been aware of how damaging ignorance towards inclusive language could be.
So what’s the impact?
Well, there are many levels to why stigma is unhelpful but crucially it dehumanises people, opens them up to discrimination and is a key barrier to provision and uptake of support. Let me rephrase that, people are not seeking support because of the stigma they feel or experience. And worryingly, in the case of substance use, studies are even finding a gradual increase in the number of deaths of people already in treatment, and it is thought that stigma could be playing a role in this.
What can comms professionals do to help?
Using substance use and mental health disorders as an example, here’s some top tips for making your writing more inclusive:
I am a person who works in communications; being a ‘comms professional’ is just part of me, it’s not all of me. Just like being depressed, anxious or addicted is not all of someone else. We’re multi-faceted creatures – don’t put people in boxes, everyone has a story and you have the power to tell it.
Our unconscious bias
Whether we realise it or not, most of us will hold some form of unconscious bias towards groups of people – mental health, substance use, criminality, disability, homelessness. After all, we’ve all been exposed ourselves to stigmatising messages. My final advice is to be aware of your own stigma and stay mindful about it creeping into your comms.
Not sure of your stigma, take this quiz.