How Mental Health Language Creates Stigma

How Mental Health Language Creates Stigma

“Weakness”, “disorder”, “abnormal”, “broken”, “mental illness” are just some of the common words used to describe behaviour, thoughts, and feelings that lie outside the norm in our society. As much as this language can benefit us such as labelling behavior that can be dangerous, I feel little attention is given to the negative side effects of pathologizing language and how it can help to create mental health stigma.

What is pathologizing language?

To pathologize is to view something through a medical lens, or in other words, a disease model. In this model humans are viewed as “healthy” or “diseased”, “normal” or “abnormal”. Pathologizing language was created from this perspective to describe and help people who are suffering. Some common pathologizing words are “symptoms”, “treatment”, and “sick”.

What are the negative side effects?

Pathologizing language is deficit-focused as it comes from the belief that people are broken and need to be fixed. Don’t get me wrong, there are many benefits to describing states of being with this language! But describing our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings as an illness can have a huge negative impact on our sense of self.

See the thing is, mental illness is not like a physical illness. A broken arm does not think and feel. When a person is diagnosed with a mental illness their identity becomes associated with pathology- they are “abnormal”, “less than”, “broken” etc. This language can be a bully in disguise as every time it is used to describe a persons’ self, it gives hope for “getting better” while also implicitly making a person feel less than, ashamed and embarrassed of themselves. This language can build you up and tear you down all at the same time!

How does it create stigma?

Stigma towards mental health issues is created and perpetuated by pathologizing language. Using this language to describe people enforces the notion that people are abnormal, disordered, and less than which helps creates stigma towards certain ways of being.

What can be done?

There is a time and place where pathologizing language has its benefits like when speaking to a doctor, getting medication, or trying to access services. But I challenge you to switch from deficit language to strength-based language outside of these situations. For example:

  • Odd, weird, freaky OR Unique
  • Moody OR Feels emotions intensely/deeply
  • Withdrawn OR Introspective
  • Hyperactive OR Energetic, full-of-life, creative
  • Antisocial OR Selective about who they value and trust, reflective


Check out more examples at aspen girl 🙂

Insight Mental Health Counselling