4ZZZ | Oppressive language, stigma and stereotypes: disability and mental illness

I’m a volunteer producer for the radio show, Only Human on 4zzz Zed Digital in Brisbane. You can find our podcasts hereThis week on the show the People of the Air join the fun with an interview with Kim Stewart as coordinator of the Ability Radio Project.  The project, which started in early 2015 with co-conspirator Ben Stimpson, is working towards increasing inclusion and diversifying your community radio sounds with the voices and opinions of people with a disability. 

Here are my stories:

[CN: ableism, mass murder mentions, violence, ableist slurs, mental illness, distressing content]

  1. Casual ableism in our language

Ableism is the discrimination in favour of able-bodied people. The Australian Human Rights Commission notes that ableist attitudes are the root of stereotypes and are linked to discrimination and even violence against people with a disability.  They can also be cause for complaints to the Human Rights Commission.  It is our obligation as equal persons in a democratic society to be sure that while we are enjoying our own freedoms, we are not restricting someone else’s. Discrimination and stigma can also have mental health effect on the target, in some cases, like that of trauma.

Dan Goodley is professor of  psychology at the University of Sheffield and has written extensively on ableism. Goodley says, “A key site of the oppression of disabled people pertains to those moments when they are judged to fail to match up to the ideal individual”.  We can see this in our everyday language. Ableist terms are always used to describe something as negative or insult people. Most people don’t even realise what these words really mean and how using them in such a way can be harmful.

For sake of example, some slurs and offensive terms for people with disabilities will be raised. Creating awareness of harmful language is really important. We need to stop describing people as retarded, or lame to insult them. When use the word retarded to describe things, we’re comparing them to a developmentally delayed person, at the same time suggesting that this an unlikeable thing. Historically, ‘lame’ was used to describe someone who couldn’t walk. Using these words as negative descriptions is really problematic; it serves to class anything that misses society’s standard of an abled-bodied person as undesirable.

While words like ‘lame’ are somewhat detached from their original meaning, there are many other clearly ableist terms we use to insult people. When we ask, “Are you blind? Or deaf? Do we consider people who are actually blind or have difficulty hearing? We even describe fatty foods as diabetes or heart attacks. Asking or saying these things in these ways, even as a joke, links disability with negativity.

One of the most misused words would be ‘crazy’, even though it’s not exclusively a slur anymore. ‘Crazy’ means mental unsoundness but is now used to describe anything from a mass murder to Donald Trump. We’re creating a connection between mental illness and violent or horrible behaviour, while stigmatising and dehumanising them.

This connection dismisses the reasons behind people’s actions, removing blame from the contributing factors and shifting it toward the mentally ill. We also need to stop using mental conditions as adjectives – there is no need to describe a perfectionist with the term OCD, or a moody person with bipolar. When we don’t use the words properly, it trivialises their true meaning. This makes it harder for people who struggle with these things to come out and speak about them and to think that people will believe them and take them seriously.

We need to constantly check ourselves: our actions, our language, our internalised ableism to build a safer space for our differently-abled community.  Normalising or casualising ableism is very problematic, and this is reflected when the recent mass murder of 19 disabled people in Japan didn’t even make headlines. 

Disability activist Sam Connor said, “In the wake of other mass murders and hate crimes, there were outpourings of public grief, rallying of communities, shows of solidarity. After Japan – perhaps the only mass hate crime where the killer had clearly signalled his intention to ‘euthanise’ hundreds of disabled people prior to the event – there was nothing.” We really need to recognise ableism and stop perpetuating it in our language.

Although Australia does not have legislation to protect people with a disability from ableist language, it does have the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) that provides people with a  disability to pursue complaints if stigmatising attitudes have affected their access to work, education, a place to live, activities of clubs or sport or access to government organisations.

See humanrights.gov.au for more information.

You can read more about Dan Goodley’s vias his articles he makes availabe free on Academia.edu

2. Construction of sickness and ‘sick identities’ #1: Linking mental illness to violent crime

There have been many hate crimes we have seen unfold in the recent months. Something I’ve been noticing is that we are so quick to jump in and call the perpetrators sociopaths, psychopaths, or mentally troubled. But this language implies that these crimes were committed as a result of mental illness rather than bigotry, systemic violence and lack of gun control.

The people who commit these crimes do so because of our society and our system that enables or in some ways encourages it. By dismissing these people as mentally ill, by using ableist language, we divert the blame from the system and the perpetrator to stereotypes. Far from being opposed to crime, the law is universalised crime. Retributive punishment accepts the context of the criminal.

Most of the time, there is no clinical diagnosis of the people committing these crimes, so we don’t distinctively know. For some reason, we always assume it. Someone with a mental illness could commit one of these violent acts. But so could someone with no history of a mental health disorder.

Statistically, it’s unlikely that someone with a mental illness will commit a violent crime. Only a small 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to those with a serious mental illness. But those with a mental illness are actually more likely to be victims of a harmful incident.

The chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, Gregory Dalack says, “The implications of making an assumption like this are potentially profound,” “It encourages the public to equate violence with mental illness, when we know that the vast majority of those who commit violent acts are not mentally ill, and the vast majority of those with mental illness do not behave in violent ways.”

A recent Johns Hopkins University study found that more than one third of news stories about mental illness link the disorders with violence toward other people. But this doesn’t accurately reflect the actual rates of interpersonal violence involving someone with a mental illness. Linking mental illness to violence also creates a perception that a mental health disorder is a character flaw. This can cause discrimination, impede recovery or even prevent people from seeking help in the first place.

On a whole, mental illness isn’t the cause of violent behaviour, but our tendency to think otherwise prolongs the stigma surrounding mental illness.

3.  Mental illness in Asia and the impact of stigma

China and India are home to more than a third of people with mental illness, but millions go untreated because of stigma and lack of resources. These findings were recently published in  the Lancet, when the UN has, for the first time, begun to recognise mental health as a global priority.

In China, less than 6 per cent of people suffering depression, anxiety, substance abuse, dementia and epilepsy seek treatment. In India, only about one in ten people is thought to receive specialist help. More than half of those with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia are not diagnosed, and much less cared for. By contrast, treatment rates in rich nations is 70 percent and up.

Factors that prevent these individuals from accessing treatment are: the lack of trained mental health professionals, poor access to mental health services especially in rural areas and the fact that less than one per cent of the national health budget in either country is allocated to the mental health care sector. Both India and China have recently put progressive policies in  place to provide help to the mentally ill, which is a step in the right direction.

The stigma or taboo associated with mental health problems in the two countries also deters employers from giving jobs to those struggling with mental illness. This consequently impacts the socio-economic status of families with mentally ill members. Unfortunately this makes it even harder for them to seek and pay for treatment.

Researchers estimated that the burden of mental illness is set to increase in the next ten years in both China and India. They suggest that by 2025, around 74 million years of healthy life will be lost to mental illness in China and India combined.

Since medical systems are failing to address the lack of mental health treatment, some researchers have been looking into alternative methods. Kamaldeep Bhui, professor of cultural psychiatry and epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London suggested that tackling stigma was imperative. He said: “Providing just legal and policy frameworks should drive reform, so that people are not deprived the very basis and affordable treatments that the rest of the world takes for granted.”

Eradicating stigma plays a huge part in addressing mental illness, social inequality and economic disparity. Understanding mental illness and educating others about it can help create acceptance and support for those struggling.

4. Construction of sickness and sick identities #2: People with mental illness can still be high-functioning 

Although we are told mental illness comes in all shapes and sizes, that it doesn’t discriminate, we don’t always believe it. It’s easy to put depression or anxiety into a checklist of symptoms. We create a mental-health stock image in our heads that in reality, many people don’t match.

When we picture depression and anxiety in adolescents, we see teenagers staying in bed all day, struggling to get by in their day-to- day lives. We see low grades, social isolation, changes in appearance. But we don’t see the student with the straight A’s. We don’t see the debating team leader, the honours-roll student, or the sports captain. No matter how many times we are reminded that mental illness can affect people from all walks of life, we revert back to a carefully constructed idea of how it should manifest, and that is dangerous.

Time and time again we see suicide stories where people comment, “I had no idea” or “they were living the perfect life” or “they were so successful”. Many people living with mental illness do not necessarily fit the list of symptoms. This makes those struggling feel unqualified to get help because they’re not sick enough or they’re getting by. They feel like they can’t possibly feel under duress as they have it all, and this often makes them feel worse.

Sarah Schuster from The Mighty describes what it’s like to have high-functioning anxiety: “It’s when you’re social enough to get invited to things, but so often find yourself standing in a room, where it feels like no one knows you. It’s being good at conversation and bad at making close friends because you only show up when you feel “well” enough.

We can’t keep allowing our ideas of what mental illness should look like to dictate how we go about recognising and treating it. Doing so will make us continue to overlook those who don’t fit our mold. We can’t disconnect mental illness with ideas of success. If we do, we forget about the people who are heavily affected by mental illness but don’t express all the symptoms we demand of them. If we forget, we allow their struggle to continue unnoticed, and that is very harmful.


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