This is the final in a series of four weekly posts about the words we use, culminating on January 30 – Bell’s Let’s Talk Day. In past weeks we’ve dealt with the “C” word , the “I” word and the “P” word.

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We often hear people in organizations talk about it – how it hinders those with mental illness from seeking help, how it’s wrong and how it needs to be overcome.

What is it? The “S” word: stigma.

Let’s look at this word a little closer. For the ancients Greeks, a stigma was a mark of shame placed on slaves – a physical label of inferiority. In our time, it’s now come to mean a feeling of shame by someone who is looked down on by others. So yes, stigma is a problem.

But what causes the stigma? Actually, it results from prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice, a preconceived negative opinion of someone without basis, often leads to discrimination, which is an unfair action against someone based on a prejudicial outlook. When society treats someone with a mental illness in a prejudicial and discriminatory fashion, a feeling of shame seems inevitable.

Our society discriminates against the mentally ill in many ways. Research lags behind more lucrative physical health fields. The resources put into our mental health system are far less than that given to physical health. Patients being treated for a psychiatric condition often don’t receive basic dignity: we continually hear from families of those discharged to the street, with no apparent concern for their wellbeing. No cancer or cardiac patient would be treated that way – why do we let it happen to a psychiatric patient?

Addressing stigma tends to minimize the problem. After all, stigma doesn’t sound as bad as racism, sexism or homophobia, does it? It focuses on the victim, implying that his or her feelings are wrong. It doesn’t address the discriminatory actions.

Here’s something to try: whenever you hear or read the word “stigma,” imagine it replaced by “discrimination.” You’ll see pretty quickly that the discussion takes a more serious tone. Keep doing this and before long the discrimination will become much more obvious.

FAMI-Alberta was started by determined family members who refuse to let stigma stop us from demanding better treatment for our loved ones. We know the stigma our family members feel – and it breaks our hearts but not our will. We know we need to address the systemic discrimination against mental illness if we want them to feel better – mentally and emotionally.

Like the Greek slaves’ physical stigma, the stigma our loved ones feel was put on them by others. By “fighting” stigma, we’re invalidating their feelings. Is that what we really want to do? No. We want to help them be treated better, and to do that we need to fight discrimination.

So let’s not just talk; let’s change the conversation. Let’s address discrimination, not stigma.

#BellLetsTalk   #WordsMatter  #ItsDiscriminationNotStigma