I have a friend who constantly forces me to “unpack” the meaning of words I use. She says we get so used to speaking in jargon or catch-words that we don’t stop and consider the depth of their meanings. She calls me out when I talk about “impact,” for example, or “support.” Her challenge to me is to dig deeper into the richness of such terms.

With that in mind, I present to you the word “stigma.” In the mental health field, we use it a lot to describe the lens through which many view people living with mental illnesses. But what does it mean?

Reviewing dictionary definitions, we find these meanings (emphasis mine):

  • a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person
  • a mark of shame or discredit 
  • a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach

There is absolutely no word in those definitions that any of us would want to be used to describe us. They certainly don’t describe members of the Well Community or others who have been ambushed by mental illnesses.

And what about that word, “illness”? Are there any other illnesses people have—through no behavior or fault of their own—that prompt us to look at them as though they have a mark of disgrace, shame, infamy, stain or reproach? So why should a mental illness generate such reactions?

I’d like to encourage us to choose new lenses to use in understanding people struggling through life with mental illnesses. Consider and then “unpack” these words: dignity, value, worth, inclusion, empathy.

We consider the Well Community to be a zero-stigma zone. But my dream is that through advocacy, education and intentionality, you and I can build a neighborhood of acceptance and compassion. Together, we can end stigma, beginning with our own hearts.

Alice