Power of Words Can Change Mental Health Stigma

Aspergers Bag

Guest post by Mary Alvord, PhD, a psychologist in Rockville, Md.

It is human nature to make assumptions about tragedies like the one that happened on Friday in Connecticut, especially before all the data are in, and before a complete set of facts are available. But the quick act of jumping to conclusions could create even more unnecessary fear and prejudice.

This phenomenon is particularly relevant when explanations involving acts of violence are attributed to “mental illness.”

Words have power.

Words can stigmatize

On the negative side, the use of certain words and phrases may stereotype, stigmatize or promote incorrect conclusions about groups of people. People are shocked about what happened, and in that anger or disbelief, they use words that can imply an incorrect connection between a mental health condition and the commitment of a horrific crime. How often have you heard a shooter described as “crazed,” “lunatic” or a “nutjob”?

In the case of reported shooter Adam Lanza, we don’t yet know about the existence of a mental illness. We may never know. But using these words to describe him continue to perpetuate the notion that those with a mental illness are violent and should be feared. If we expect to reduce the stigma of mental health care, and increase the number of people who can benefit from it, we need to be careful about how anyone is described.

Assumptions can stigmatize

Assertions are always made after attacks that the shooter had a mental illness. In this case, recent reports made statements that he had Asperger’s Syndrome or a personality disorder. Firstly, we don’t know that this is true. Secondly, and most importantly, the insinuation that mental illness is associated with intentional violence can lead to the unwarranted fear that all people with developmental or mental health disorders are dangerous.

The unfortunate consequences of these assumptions are that those who suffer from short- or long-term mental health difficulties may isolate themselves, experience feelings of shame, and avoid seeking help.

Talking about facts can help us understand and grow

On the positive side, words can help to explain, provide accurate information and console. Helpful words and phrasing stick to the facts and provide descriptions and explanations. The proper use of words may help others understand that whereas grappling with uncertainty is difficult, it is far better than mislabeling or providing incorrect assumptions.

Fact: There is no causal connection between a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and planned violence against others.

Developmental disorders such as Asperger’s, and mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, show no causal relationship between the disorder and intentional violence toward others. To the contrary, most people with mental health disorders are more likely to be the victims of violence.

People with mental illness or developmental disorders may behave in different and even unique ways. The Guide for Reporting on Mental Illness reports that “the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent … mental illness contributes very little to the overall rate of violence in the general population.”

Fact: When individuals with mental health disorders seek treatment, there is a high recovery rate.

Often, people with depression and anxiety demonstrate remarkable resilience in reaction to adversity and challenges they face. Moreover, resilience skills can be learned.

It is true that we need to challenge the stigma of mental illness to further encourage those people who need help to reach out for treatment. The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, provides an opportunity to educate both public and the media that evidence-based mental health treatments are available and show promising results in regard to outcome.

Dr. Mary Alvord is a psychologist in Maryland who specializes in resilience and evidence-based practice. She is the 2013 president of the APA division for media psychology and technology. You can follow her on Twitter @drmalvord.

Photo by iamthetherapist (via Flickr)

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15 Responses to “Power of Words Can Change Mental Health Stigma”

  1. benefits of meditation   August 10, 2013 at 1:07 am

    By trying to argue that this incident was in no way related to the shooter’s aspergers symptoms, you are doing the world a disservice by trying to distract from the real source of these horrible events

  2. writing a business plan   August 6, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    Thank you for this insightful post! You are right, the public should be aware that not all mentally ill people are brutal and violent.

  3. Angelina   July 31, 2013 at 12:49 am

    I run a rehabilitation center in Spain for children and adults suffereing with cerebral palsy and have analysed that power of words through a dialogue or an interaction can do wonders in their life by regaining the lost confidence and looking at life with newfound hopes.Often these people live in denial and are abandoned by the society.They fail to express their agony,anxiety,depression,strain,helplessness and the turbulence of emotions taking place within them.I have started conducting Psychotherapy sessions few months from now where the therapist try to communicate with them to help them vent out and can notice a significant improvement in patient’s behaviour,demeanor and that also reflected in positive change in their physical condition too.

  4. Neetu hookumerty   July 5, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    This post reminds me of my favourite Hindi movie MY NAME IS KHAN where the male lead with an asperger’s syndrome raised by a very affectionate mother and leads a life of a normal person.I congratulate Angel and Mary for bringing forth this issue of mental health about which very little is talked and very few of us know the subject in depth. It is indeed laudable effort to enable the families and society understand the importance of power of words,special care can make significant improvement in such patients.The T-Shirt in the picture reflecting the true spirit I LOVE SOMEONE WITH ASPERGERS.

  5. Veronica   July 2, 2013 at 10:43 am

    My son is slightly autistic and although the school system and the teachers have been wonderful, the children can be hurtful. I think the more we teach our children about differences the more accepting our society will be.

  6. Gayle   June 24, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Hi Angel, how absolutely correct you are and the picture at the top made me smile. My son has no known diagnosis, he is simply a little slower to pick things up. I worry about him all the time, as mother’s tend to do, but reading your entry put my mind into better adjustment and made me happy.

  7. Wood Amelia   June 21, 2013 at 12:29 am

    I am a social servant affiliated with an institution which works for the people suffering with Asperger’s syndrome,cerebral palsy.From my experience I can very confidently say that this psychological illness does not have any connection with terrorism and violence.I agree that the pressure from our society can make one feel guilty,ashamed to come out in public admitting that they are suffering.The power of words can do wonders both in a positive as well as in negative way.One must use the words cautiously so as to avoid incorrect interpretations among masses.I appreciate that you have made an attempt through this post to educate people more on mental health stigma.

  8. Powell Addison   May 19, 2013 at 1:20 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this, I have come to the point in my life whereby I have admitted to my family and c.lose friends that I may be suffering from a personality disorder and just starting the journey of finding out what is actually going on in my head. After years of disastrous relationships, broken friendships, rash decisions and a huge amount of grief for my my family I have gone to see a psychologist and am awaiting an appointment with a psychiatrist to help me better understand what is actually going on. Im terrified, its very daunting and helps so much to know that I am not alone in all this. thank you so much for sharing what you have gone through, you’re very brave and I am proud of you and how far you have come.

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  11. karen   January 7, 2013 at 8:11 am

    I agree that mental health is stigmatized, from childhood I suffered depression, but would not seek help or tell anyone because of what people said about it. Eventually I ended up in hospital after taking an overdose in my 40’s and was diagnosed with Bi-polar 1 disorder. When I eventually plucked up the courage to tell my mother, the first thing she said was, do you get feelings to hurt people. The only person I have ever harmed is myself. Often because other peoples reactions to me make me feel inferior and bad..

  12. DrKnow   December 25, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    I agree that words are powerful. I also agree that precision is important in diagnoses, lest you have reactions like the one below suggesting all people with symptoms of Asperger’s ‘be put in special schools’ to presumably protect the victims from the bullies. However, I disagree with the implication that the Adam Lanza may not have had a mental illness. If he falls outside any existing diagnoses, I think that would speak to poor diagnostic categories than speaking to the sanity of Lanza.

  13. Amy Aaronson   December 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    I am very concerned that the opinions expressed by “wrong” are more widespread in the wake of the tragedy. The APA article makes very important points, backed by research and an understanding of Autism that the person who made the comment apparently lacks. As both a psychologist who has worked with people on the autistic spectrum and an aunt of a gentle, caring niece with high functioning autism I hope that the APA makes special efforts to educate the public and speak to a wider audience.

  14. wrong   December 21, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    This article is nothing but a completely pointless carebear ramble. There IS a connection between asperger’s and the killing that took place. Individuals with asperger’s don’t have the emotional connection to others that allow them to understand what other people are thinking or feeling. That’s exactly why that kid was able to shoot his mom, and then a bunch of kids. By trying to argue that this incident was in no way related to the shooter’s aspergers symptoms, you are doing the world a disservice by trying to distract from the real source of these horrible events. The Aurora shooter is also believed to have aspergers and so is the Arizona shooter. These people need to all be monitored closely, and as children they need to be put in special schools. That way they can get the psychological conditioning they need as well as avoid any possible bullying incidents from neurotypical kids.