Earlier today, I was at a meeting where the team planning a mental health conference excitedly reported that one of the speakers was bringing his son to the event. “He has bipolar but he’s very successful professionally,” the conference team member said of the younger man. Did that raise your hackles, too? Let’s try a few similar sentences and see how well they work: “She uses a wheelchair BUT she’s a really good graphic designer.” “He has Lyme disease BUT he’s an excellent father.” “She’s pregnant BUT she’s a very good cook.” “He has high cholesterol BUT he’s the top salesman in his department.”
When do we reduce people’s achievements to qualifiers of their health conditions? Mostly when their health conditions are mental health conditions. “She has bipolar disorder BUT she was fastest to associate in the company’s history.” “He has schizophrenia BUT you can count on him any time you need prayer for anything.” Using language without stigma sounds more like this: “He’s an excellent father EVEN THOUGH he has Lyme disease.” “You can count on him any time you need prayer EVEN THOUGH he has schizophrenia.” Do you feel the difference? Go ahead: make some fill-in-the-blank stigma sentences in the comment section, then fix them. And the next time you hear someone use stigmatizing language like this, help them fix their words. Words have power. Let’s help everyone use them well.