Casual Stigma

I was a bit early to collect my son from school today so I sat in the car listening to BBC Radio Five Live – my preferred radio channel.  Richard Bacon was interviewing the actor / singer John BARROWMAN and his sister, Professor Carol BARROWMAN and the subject came up of accents.  These guys were born in Scotland to Scottish parents but moved to the United States as children.  Consequently they can speak easily and naturally with with Scottish and American accents and often switch for different reasons.  They were talking away about the concept of having two ‘natural accents’ when Carol suddenly described the practice of swapping between them as “a bit schizophrenic”.

It reminded of a boss I once had: someone who on one occasions took exception to two opinions I had which she regarded as inherently contradictory and informed me that “it was a bit schizophrenic if you think about it.”  Thanks for that – best book myself into the clinic with a debilitating medical condition then?

It got me thinking about casual stigma in our discourse and in our attitudes – we’ve seen loads of it over the last 48hrs in the fallout of the Nicola Edgington case and the subsequent media reporting but we get in loads of low-level ways too.  from the playground to the boardroom this country is consumed with stigmatising attitudes to mental health disorders, despite the fact that a quarter of us will suffer a mental health condition during our lifetimes.

Have you ever come across the Twitter account @EverydaySexism?  All of this got me thinking – we should collate and document examples of casual stigma in mental illness with a view to highlighting them, challenging them and giving feedback to the people involved.  So I have set up a new Twitter account under the name @casualstigma.

The idea is, that people tweet the account with their 140 word examples of #casualstigma whilst also using the hashtag and we can highlight them to the world via Twitter.  It’s only been going a few hours and has a few hundred followers and various examples flying in – arising from which someone is wanting to write to the BBC because it emerges that the ‘schizophrenia’ line is not new on Radio Five Live.


Are we at risk of being a bit sensitive – a bit politically correct?  No doubt some will say so, but I don’t recall anyone telling me I was a bit “emphasemic” when I last had a cough; we are starting to find other medical conditions pushing back against it being the whole definition of someone – like referring to someone as “a diabetic” – so why not raise awareness in mental health.  After all, many would suggest it is difficult enough living in a world where the comparatively rare disasters that are seen in the Edgington case are blown out of proportion, precisely because they are rare and despite there being valid issues to discuss in terms of state responses to known risks.

Please think about how language and attitudes can stigmatise and raise awareness of this new account which is collating examples of casual stigma.

Update on 01st April 2015 – since writing this article, a new Code of Practice has come into effect in England.  It doesn’t substantially alter the post but certain reference numbers have changed.  My summary post about the new Code of Practice (2015) is here, the new Reference Guide is here and the full document is here.  The Code of Practice (Wales) remains unchanged.

IMG_0053IMG_0052Winner of the President’s Medal from
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.


15 thoughts on “Casual Stigma

  1. Sadly there will be many, many cases involving Tourette Syndrome – Recently even the Prime Minister made a “joke” comparing the Shadow Chancellor with someone with Tourettes – and gave only a half-hearted apology. For some reason it seems that this neuro-psychiatric condition is seen as highly amusing (try having it), and all about swearing (90% of sufferers do not swear, and those who do tend to have the most debilitating form of the condition). Raising awareness can be a double-edged sword as it can re-enforce common misconceptions unless done well. Many mental health conditions face similar difficulties. Whilst some high profile TV can be extremely helpful (thinking of Tourettes – Let Me Entertain You – BBC – excellent), other publicity is NOT good publicity (currently Channel 4’s “mockumentary” Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners). I still can’t fathom out why it’s OK to poke fun at or “set up” people with some brain disorders (eg Tourettes, ADHD, schizophrenia), and yet others – eg Parkinsons, Motor Neurone, Cerebral Palsy, Autism – are more “off limits”. Lots of myth busting and awareness raising to be done.

  2. I’d see your example re the accents as being misinformed, but not stigmatising. No-one is saying that having two accents is bad, and being compared to a successful actor and professor is a good thing! The comparison rests on an incorrect idea of what schizophrenia is, but not a bad idea.

    1. Hmm, not sure about that. The obvious extension is to say that the schoolyard insults we used to hurl at each other relating to mental disability or spasticity were just ill-informed and not at all offensive. Different when you have a friend or relative with Down’s Syndrome.

  3. MIchael, completely off topic, but as someone who values your precision and accuracy, I thought I would mention that John and his sister Carol were actually born and raised in Glasgow, only moving to America when John was about 9 years old, therefore his Scottish accent is actually his genuine one. After a lot of ribbing he asked an American school friend to teach him an American accent, which is the one he usually mainly today, but reverts to his natural accent in private especially with his family.

  4. It annoys me so much! People dont actually realise what schizophrenia is? A disorder with the misperception of reality, a scary disorder which you have to live with. not a split personality! im a 3rd year student mh nurse at ljmu and suffer depression and anxiety. i am now on 30mg citalopram and continuing my studies. my newly qualified midwife (ex-freind) friend said: “dont you think its all in your head”. Well yes. it is, hense my medication. ive come across general nurses giving the same discrimjnation to a female patient who came in a hospital with high delirium, confused and anxious. She had a lumbar puncture to rule out any physical reasons. when asking for stroger pain meds (as shes head a needle in her spine) the SISTER on the ward conplained to the Other nurses “that psycho woman wont shut the f**k up”. if health professionals have this attitude how do we tackle everyone else?!

  5. John Barrowman…Capt Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood…you’re clearly not a fan !!

  6. There was a similar use of ‘schizophrenic’ to describe a new model of mini on the Magazine section of the BBC news website not long ago. I sent an email explaining why I felt it wasn’t a helpful descriptor to use in that context, expecting to be ignored. An hour later it was gone, and an editor called to apologise. I’ve had similar responses to alerting them when they have breached their own editorial code on reporting suicide – fast and seemingly genuinely apologetic. Other media sources have not always responded so well, but my experience is that calling people on such language is worth a try. As you say the use of such language is often casual and poorly considered, when given the opportunity to reflect on it behaviour can change.

    While we’re on the casual stigma thing though: anorexia. I barely know where to start the use of offensive and discriminatory language about ED’s is so common in the media, and society more widely. My most recent example – taking clothes into a changing room at a department store. [I’ve relapsed, am facing an extremely long wait for ED care and require small sizes of clothes, I am acutely embarassed about my size and do not draw attention to it.] I passed back a dress to an assistant because it was too large [though didn’t state this was the reason] and she called over loudly to her colleague as I was walking away – though clearly within earshot, as were a number of other people – ‘anorexic can’t fit a zero, hahaha’. It’s hard to read an article referring to weight or shape without commentators referring to ‘real’ women being women of a certain size (a size which I have been unable to attain for years). I think they are perhaps trying to be helpful in the discourse on body image and move away from the fetishisation of thinness, but so crudely as to suggest people my size are not female or real is problematic. Anorexia is so often used as an insult or criticism in the discourse around weight and shape – an example widespread in the microanalysis of weight loss/gain of celebrities in magazines/websites. I can’t imagine many other illnesses [other than perhaps addiction?] being used so casually in an accusatory and derogatory way. People in shops/cafes regularly talk about my weight and point at me in public. I sometimes wonder if the openness of their criticism is because they think it is a lifestyle choice rather than a pathology and so ‘deserves’ or will be amenable to their critique.

  7. The one that gets me is the misuse of the word “psychotic”. As in the drama on TV where it turns out that someone is the murderer and the motive given is that “they’re psychotic”. In fact the word that should have been used is psychopathic. It’s a total nightmare if you then have a diagnosis that includes the word “psychotic” (as my daughter has).

  8. To emmie- i cannot believe someone said that to you! I had ed aged 12 and have recovered well although it was highly ignored by health professionals… i follow alot of young girls on twitter with ed as i am a student mental health nurse, and find it informative to see it from thier perspective. many people withh ed want it to be a scret, hense thier anonymous accounts, and rarely have i seen it be described as a lifestyle. As someone who has always been naturally slim i got bullied for being anorexic through school, which whilst recovering i found really hard to deal with. Even now as a healthy 21 year old at a size 8-10 i get called for lookig ‘ill’; last time by my literally morbidly obease tutor at university (who is a registered mh nurse!). stigma on all angles needs to end its sickening. i see so many of my patients lose out o oppertunities due to thier mebtal health

    1. Sorry to hear you were ignored by health professionals and bullied – bullying as well as coping with ED sounds horrendous – although really glad you’ve recovered well. I know what you mean about people saying you look ill if you are slim. When I’ve been well, and size 8-10 and bmi well within normal range I still used to get it all the time. It was very demoralising. It seems a lot of people have little concept of what healthy body weight can look like. Why they feel entitled to comment critically on your weight to you in that way – especially in the context of a tutor at uni(!) is also questionable, but again something I can relate to. It’s good news for people in my situation that you’re training to be a mh nurse. People with understanding and empathy for ED’s are much needed!!

  9. John and Carole Barrowman don’t ‘claim’ to have Scottish ancestry . They ARE Scottish. Both were born in Glasgow to Scottish parents. The family moved to USA when they were children.

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