Fight Stigma with Language

Words have power. They are impactful. They can contribute to stigma and divide humanity. To help fight stigma, change your language.

Why Language Matters: 4 Words/Phrases to Stop Saying

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

Have you ever been called a bitch? A creep? A whore? An idiot? Maybe someone said you were lazy or worthless or stupid. Words can hurt. Language has power. (Consider the power of your name spoken aloud… you immediately respond by answering or turning your head… the sound commands your attention and response.)

Furthermore, words are impactful… not only for the person being labeled, but for an entire group of people. They contribute to stigma while fueling biases. They divide humanity. Retard. White trash. Crazy. Junkie. N*****. Slut. Spic.

A while back, a colleague made a racial slur in my presence. He seemed unaware, so I gently corrected him; he immediately lashed back, calling me the “PC Police.” Not only did this person perceive the slur as perfectly acceptable, he seemed to have a negative perception of “political correctness.” It was a joke to him: “People need to stop being so sensitive!” (Um, no… maybe people need to stop being degrading to each other!)

Honestly, I have trouble understanding the negativity surrounding political correctness. Why strive for anything other than accuracy? (Especially knowing the power language holds.)

Why Language Matters: 4 Words/Phrases to Stop Saying

If you side against ignorance and want to end the stigma associated with mental illness, change your language. The following words or phrases contribute to stigma:

“Addict”

There are many negative connotations surrounding this word. Similarly, “alcoholic” can be demeaning. A person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol has a medical condition. Instead of calling them an addict (or junkie or tweaker or crackhead), say “individual with a substance use disorder.” Demonstrate the same empathy you would for a person who has cancer or MS or paralysis.

“Schizophrenic”

Don’t label a person who suffers from mental illness. They are more than the disorder they’re afflicted with. Calling someone “schizophrenic” or “borderline” or “bipolar” reduces them to an illness, not a person. It’s dehumanizing.

“Retarded”

True, “mental retardation” used to be the diagnostic terminology for classifying individuals with lower IQs. Today, however, it’s mostly used as an insult. The American Psychiatric Association has eliminated the term as a classification; the correct term is “intellectual disability.”

“Committed suicide”

This phrase suggests that the person who dies by suicide is criminal. Criminals commit crimes. An individual who dies by suicide should not be placed in the same category. Instead, say “died by suicide.” This demonstrates respect for both the individual and their loved ones.


Language has the power to influence and shape the world. You have power. Be a positive influence and choose to fight stigma instead of contributing to the toxicity.

Author: Cassie Jewell

Cassie Jewell, introvert and avid reader, is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner with a Master's Degree in Community Counseling.

2 thoughts on “Fight Stigma with Language”

  1. Great post! I will add, that people with diabetes much prefer to be called people with diabetes, rather than diabetics. Keep up the great writing!

  2. Just excellent, Cass. Much criticism of “political correctness” is just camouflage people use to hide their bigotry. But with words alone we could change the world’s antipathy to sympathy.
    Your blog has quality written all over it.

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