Stigma Lite: Why we should sweat the small stuff

I had a discussion today about how to react when people use offensive terms about mental illness or speak about someone with a mental health problem in a stigmatising way. The idea came up that a very small fraction of people mean to be offensive – the majority of people just do it through ignorance. The implication being that we should mind less when people are offensive through ignorance – they didn’t mean to do it, so we shouldn’t get upset.

Which brings me back to this point again: stigma is pervasive. It’s not just the horror movies based on mental institutions or people being called “crazy” or “nuts”. The small things can be just as devastating to someone’s life even if people didn’t mean it.

The idea that something should affect you less just because the person didn’t mean to do it doesn’t make any sense. Intent matters in terms of how we respond to someone, not how their actions affect us. If someone steps on your foot, it hurts just as much whether they meant to do it or not. If someone says something derogatory about people with mental health problems (or treats you badly because of your own mental ill health), it hurts just as much whether they did it through ignorance or maliciousness.

In terms of how we actively respond to someone, of course there’s a difference. We don’t shout at people who stepped on our feet by accident and we don’t behave sternly or angrily with people who use stigmatising language when we have reason to believe they didn’t know what they were saying. But in terms of how to feel when this kind of thing happens? There’s no difference. It hurts just as much. And it can have just as much of a damaging effect on people’s lives.

When a boss decides to sack someone because they reveal their mental health problem. When a friend turns their back on another friend. When a worker attributes their colleague’’s illness to “oversensitivity” or “a lack of resilience”. All of this hurts people. All of this ruins lives. And all of this can be attributed to ignorance and not malicious intent. The boss and the friend and the worker aren’t bad people. The boss believes the employee could be a liability and they can’t offer them the right support. The friend is sick of how much their friend relies on them and truly believes they’re just attention-seeking. The colleague thinks their colleague is getting special treatment for no reason and they should just try a bit harder. This is ignorance – it’s not wilful but it has consequences. Where there’s a misunderstanding of what mental illness is, there is stigma.

Ignorance breeds fear which breeds hate. When we make thoughtless comments or stick labels onto people, we are contributing to something dangerous, something which can destroy people. We need to challenge ourselves and challenge other people and realise how deep stigma can go. We also need to comprehend the duality of being hard-working, decent people and being ignorant of things we don’t understand. You can be a good person and make a stigmatising comment without thinking. You can make stigmatising comments through ignorance and be a good person. The two things don’t cancel each other out. It’s up to us to decide whether we learn from something or block it out. Because there is no such thing as Stigma Lite.

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