Opinion pieces

Stigma

Stigma is a problem that needs to be tackled within the world. But especially within nursing.

As a mental health nursing student, I try to fight against the stigma that people living with mental illnesses face every day. People saying that mental illness isn’t real. They just need to get a grip some say. Man up. Stigmatising language like calling people “nutters” or other such stigmatising language. Even within mental health illnesses, professionals can stigmatise people with personality disorders as being “manipulative” and difficult to work with and not being “proper mental illness” like other secondary mental illnesses such as bipolar or schizophrenia.

As a mental health nursing student, I’ve faced my own stigma against my profession that we “only sit around drinking coffee and talking”. I’ve heard it said that we’re not “real nurses” which is not only stigmatising against the people we care for but is completely inaccurate and ill informed. Mental health isn’t alone in this. I know colleagues in Learning Disability services, my mother included, face similar stigma. But some physical illnesses such as HIV have faced, and still do, huge stigma due to the presumed lifestyle choices of someone who has contracted the virus, be it men who have sex with men or people who inject drugs; both considered outside of societal norms and values.

The way we talk about the people we care for is important. As well as the way we talk about our colleagues. The more we change the language we use, the less stigmatising it becomes. It’s not “political correctness gone mad” as I’ve been accused of in the past – it’s about having common decency, being non judgemental and applying reflective practice to the language we use not only WITH our patients but ABOUT them too. It’s SO simple. It’s an easy win for us but it makes the world of difference.

This sort of stigmatising language and the belief behind them has a direct effect on people’s lives. Someone may decide not to engage with services when having suicidal thoughts, then not trusting people around them and thinking people will laugh or judge them because they come forward with their thoughts and therefore end their life.

A quick list:

· Describing someone by their diagnosis is stigmatising. They are not their illness. They are that person.
· Someone with the condition schizophrenia is not a “schizophrenic”. A person living with a personality disorder is not “a raging PD”. They are a person.
· A politician we don’t agree with is not mad/a nutter/barmy. They have a differing opinion. (I’m looking at you, Trump critics.)
· Someone who has had a HIV test and has had a negative result is not “clean”. This implies someone living with HIV is dirty.
· Similarly, someone who has been using substances is not dirty therefore going through a detox and becoming sober does not make them clean.
· Someone is not an “alky” or a “drunk”. They could be someone with a co-morbidity of substance misuse and mental health conditions (dual diagnosis).

The list could go on.

We should all be stigma fighters. If you hear stigmatising language being used, you should challenge it. I have. Use one of the 6 Cs. Courage. It takes courage to speak up against others. Or nothing will change.

Nurses are the most trusted profession. Above all others. If we don’t lead the way society won’t change either.

(Luke Woodhouse – student nurse)  

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