DSPO Campaign Seeks to End Stigmatizing Language

By Tara DavisJune 23, 2023

DSPO Campaign Seeks to End Stigmatizing Language
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DSPO Campaign Seeks to End Stigmatizing Language
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“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is an age-old adage that is used as the ultimate comeback to verbal bullying. This saying implies that physical injury is far worse than any blow from a verbal remark. Words, however, do have the power to insult and can even change people’s perceptions. That’s why the Defense Suicide Prevention Office’s (DSPO) Your Words Matter campaign is challenging the status quo by encouraging you to switch the way you discuss or address mental health topics.

“In society, mental health challenges continue to be one of the most stigmatized. By talking about it and challenging people’s beliefs about mental health, we can promote understanding and normalize mental health challenges and treatment,” says Joanne Price, Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) manager at Fort Irwin, California. “This also includes challenging our own beliefs and the way we talk about our own mental health issues, as our thoughts and judgement about mental health can create perceived barriers to getting care and support.”

Words have the power to create connections and encourage. They also have the power to stigmatize and prevent people from seeking the care they may need. Language is that tool that can make people feel comfortable sharing their experiences with mental health as well as expressing that they may be struggling with needing or getting help.

“Language plays a key role in shaping our thoughts and beliefs,” Price says. “If we want to change the narrative, we must change the words we use. This is especially important if we want to create a culture within our organizations that supports seeking help when we have a struggle.”

She explains that talking about mental health in ways that don’t accuse someone of being wrong or behaving incorrectly can encourage help-seeking behaviors. “When we use terms that predispose judgment, we send the message that what someone does or has done is bad or negative. Struggling with a mental health challenge is no different than struggling with any medical issue, and to support and encourage someone to get help, we need to use words that encourage seeking help early.”

•        Avoiding negative terms and labels and encouraging others to use proper terms when addressing mental health.

•        Creating safe spaces by encouraging helpseeking behaviors and sharing resources such as the veterans and military crisis lines.

•        Sharing stories of hope and recovery, to build trust and support and to encourage someone who is currently struggling that the situation can get better.

Avoiding negative terms and labels can look like referring to a person who may be suffering from a mental health condition in the following ways:

•        A person with suicidal ideation, instead of a suicidal person.

•        A person engaging in substance misuse, instead of an addict.

•        A person with bipolar disorder, instead of a manic-depressive.

“Words have power,” Price says. “They can encourage us and motivate us to move forward, or they can bind us, discourage and isolate us. Words must be followed up by actions, though. You can say you support mental health, but if you don’t allow anyone the time to get the help, your actions don’t match your words. Words and our actions that support our words are the key to breaking the stigma.”

For more proper language to use when discussing mental health conditions, refer to the DSPO Your Words Matter Factsheet. You can learn how to #BeThere for someone who may be experiencing suicidal ideation by visiting the Army Resilience Directorate website for information and resources.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation or thinking about harming themself, please call the 24/7 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.