Introducing StigmaWatch

A series on stigma and language for health marketers

Stigma is complex. And it’s everywhere. It can shape our opinions about people based on their age, race, gender identity, socio-economic status and religion. So it’s likely that you’ve experienced stigmatization and can understand how others’ (often incorrect) perceptions can make you feel.  

Not a day goes by that we don’t hear the word stigma. It’s become part of the daily vocabulary in public health. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the destructive effects of stigma first hand.

That’s why we started StigmaWatch. Our aim with StigmaWatch is to increase stigma literacy, so communicators and marketers in public health and healthcare can change the triggering words of stigmatizing language into language that creates a better environment for people to improve their physical, mental and emotional health. 

This article will give you a topline overview of what stigma is, how it hurts and what we as public health and healthcare marketers can do to ensure our work does not add fuel to the fire. The rest of the StigmaWatch series will give you specific language do’s and don’ts to use by category, including substance use disorders, mental health and HIV. 

How stigma hurts

Time and again, we’ve seen stigmatization hamper healing, health and well-being:

  • People living with HIV who were afraid to be seen going into a clinic stopped seeking treatment that could prolong and enhance their quality of life.
  • Patients were called “junkies” or “addicts” by emergency room personnel, whose stigmatizing perceptions and language pushed them much further away from healing and recovery.
  • People trying to stop smoking were stigmatized by family and friends for being a smoker, which created a self-stigma that made the smoker feel worthless and unable to seek help to quit.

See the double-edged sword? The wrong language creates a social stigma that can build up incorrect assumptions that a person is bad or amoral, rather than seeing them as a person living with a disease. When a patient hears this language, it can cause self-stigmatization (when a person becomes aware of public stigma and internalizes it), making them feel worse about themselves.


Changing is about undoing

Stigmatizing language, beliefs and judgment have always been implicitly in each of us. It’s natural. And over time, from how we’re raised to our life experiences to our interactions with friends, media and social media, perceptions about people form and result in a negative association and perception. Sure, it can be unintentional, and incorrect. But it’s damaging, and it leads to stereotype and bias. 

Also, quite naturally, humans want to be accepted. So, to someone dealing with a substance use disorder or a mental health issue, being labeled by negative, stigmatizing language can make them feel isolated, vulnerable and not accepted, creating huge roadblocks that can make them want to hide and avoid help. 

So as marketers, advertisers and communicators, let’s watch and undo the use of the language that hurts by using the language that helps. 

Reducing stigma is a long and difficult process. It’s about understanding, then actively aligning our words and actions with the needs of those who need it most. Stay tuned for our next StigmaWatch article where we’ll provide a glossary of the stigmatizing words and phrases in mental health, as well as the words and phrases we in health communications should be using in their place. We welcome your thoughts and ideas on stigma and language. Just send them to KW2 Account Supervisor & Behavior Change Specialist Michelle Sweet.