Stigmatising language and Vogue Portugal’s new issue about mental health

Where do I even begin…? 

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So I just found out that Vogue Portugal have released their new issue… called ‘The Madness Issue’… with this image on the front cover. This image, which depicts the scene of a psychiatric hospital, feeds in to the already deeply stigmatised view of mental health admissions. And the fact that it is even called ‘The Madness Issue’… doesn’t exactly help those who need it but are already afraid to get the help they need. Doesn’t exactly help people understand the reality of mental health. Doesn’t exactly help us remove the stigma of mental health… if anything, it’s contributing to the stigma. It’s going to make people think that this is what psychiatric hospitals are currently like. It’s going to encourage thoughts like “they’re mad”, “she’s crazy!”, “he’s a lunatic!”, “they’ve gone round the bend!” and “be careful, these kind of people go nuts!” – it’s going to make people view mental health as something to be scared of rather than speaking out about it and getting support 

This is extremely disrespectful. Extremely harmful. Extremely stigmatising. An extreme misrepresentation. And yet it feels as though they’re glamorising and glorifying mental health admissions by putting this hurtful and disturbing image on the cover of a major fashion magazine. It’s disappointing and extremely outdated. It’s the 21st century.. Just as I thought we were moving forwards about the attitudes surrounding mental health, it feels as though we’ve gone backwards. The media greatly affects what the public think about mental health – from films and TV to news articles and social media to…magazines. The media have a responsibility to ensure that they don’t release anything that may cause harm or offence. They have a responsibility to increase awareness and erase the stigma embedded into our society. They hold a lot of power into influencing these opinions and attitudes. They need to do better. We all need to do better. There’s still a lot to do in terms of dismantling the stigma in our society around mental health.

I also want to talk about how our everyday language might actually contribute to this stigma. Generations have grown up with phrases like ‘pscho’, ‘lunatic’, ‘deranged’, ’crazy’, ‘schizo’, ‘insane’, ‘loonie’, ‘they’ve gone round the bend’ and ‘these kind of people go nuts’… I could go on, but you get the general idea. Similar to this ‘Madness Issue’ from Vogue Portugal; describing someone with a mental health condition as ‘mad’  still counts towards contributing to the outdated ideas of mental health illnesses, thus increasing the stigma. Society have used these phrases for so long that it is deeply embedded in our everyday vocabulary. The same attitudes are shown when talking to someone about suicide: “you’re not thinking of doing anything silly are you?” – this just places even more guilt and shame around the person and how they may be feeling, making them feel even worse (also, saying ‘committed’ suicide rather than ‘completed’ suicide or ‘taking/ending one’s life’ doesn’t help as the phrase ‘committed’ refers to the time when taking your life was seen as a crime and a sin).

Language is important. It’s a powerful thing. “Oh, I’m so OCD about these things”, “I seem to be a bit bipolar today”, “I’m so depressed this afternoon”, “They’re a schizophrenic”, “She’s so anorexic”, “He’s a psycho”, “If this happens, I’m gonna kill myself” – all phrases which we’ve heard at some point. But using mental health diagnoses in this way almost diminishes the real impact of having the condition. For example, saying that you’re “OCD about this” is not the same has having OCD. Sure, you might be pernickety or particular but it is not the same. Or saying that you’re “depressed this afternoon” isn’t the same as having depression – you might be feeling sad or upset, but there is a difference. Calling someone by their diagnosis (eg. ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘anorexic’) contributes to labelling them as nothing more than their condition, when they’re still a person. The causal usage of mental health conditions in this way can lead to misunderstanding of the actual diagnosis. This may not seem like a big deal and I’m just being fussy BUT it is important and it does contribute to the stigmatising views. It does contribute to the overall attitudes of mental health. Because, the truth is, you can live a very normal and fulfilling life and have a mental health condition with the right help and support, which people shouldn’t be afraid of.

Call out any inappropriate language around mental health. Explain why. And don’t use a mental health condition to describe how you’re feeling. It’s small changes like this that can have a big, wide spread impact when breaking down this stigma. We, along with the media, can do so much in changing how the world sees mental health, because we all have mental health. Whether it’s good mental health or bad mental health, but we all have it and it is just as valid as our physical health. 

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