Blog: The stigma of stigma


This weekend we will see the first same sex couple on Dancing on Ice as Steps singer H dons his skates with partner American pro-skater Matt Evers. This comes weeks after rival reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing featured a same sex couple's routine in its 16th series.

While many applaud this and those from the LGBT plus community highlight that public performances like this offer them role models and people who look like them and give them the confidence to be able to be themselves, the BBC faced a backlash of 200 complaints that the performance was ‘offensive’ and I’ve no doubt that ITV will see some similar comments.

At Post we launched our Diversity and Inclusion in Insurance Awards last November (and have featured many of the winners on our website in recent weeks) and, while we widely received market support for this initiative, I was surprised and still am by some other less welcome reactions we saw.

On our Twitter marketing campaign we received regular comments of ‘no thanks’ or ‘who wants this’ and because my colleague’s speech on the night while presenting the awards echoed the very reason our achievement winner, Heidi McCormack, set up her firm Emerald Life – to challenge the historical fact that insurance was set up by middle class white men for middle class white men, which neglected the needs of customers that did not fit into a mainstream model – we were told we had offended.

Therefore my first reaction this week when I received an email entitled ‘a disagreement’, which included a link to a recent write up on the winner of our mental health champion, was to wish people would get on board with diversity and those that don’t take a long walk off a short pier. However, on closer inspection and a quick Google I realised the author Harold Maio was actually highlighting something else.

I often forget as I go through daily life juggling my role of single mum, increasingly a career for many parents, manager of a team of journalists and full time editor, the power my role gives me. Maio was pointing this out to me and asking that I take a closer look at this.

We have a house style at Post and I feel strongly about some terms we use and how we apply language (ask my team about the chicken hat) but my Googling found an article by another journalist Stephen Waddington responding to a similar email to mine from Maio and stopped me in my tracks.

Maio wasn’t asking me to stop talking about mental health and diversity. He was asking us to stop perpetuating the myths around mental health as within the article I had allowed the word ‘stigma’ and he suggested by doing so I was giving a voice to the myth.

He said: “Voicing it personally or editorially [the stigma] only empowers those directing it”. 

In Waddington’s email Maio went further: “Avoid the articles ‘the’, ‘a’, and thereby avoid ‘the’ mentally ill, ‘a’ depressive. Use ‘person-centred’ language, such as ‘people with bipolar disorder’ or an ‘individual with depression.’

“Avoid using adjectives that label people. Instead, use substantives, naming their conditions. Avoid ‘mental illness.’ Whenever you can use the fully informative, specific diagnosis.

“Avoid ‘mental illness’ in the singular. Use the plural ‘mental illnesses’ as there are many. Avoid ‘mental’ illness. Whenever possible, use illness instead. They are illnesses. Avoid the innuendo “’stigma’, it victimises. Use instead ‘prejudice’ or ‘discrimination,’ specifics which can be concretely addressed or redressed.”

In reading this I’ve realised that through our language in the media and grouping people, when we seek to empower individuals from every different walk of life instead we can be doing the discriminating ourselves. From this point forward our house style will look to address this.

But in reaching this realisation I now see it everywhere and when insurers and brokers talk of ‘the policyholder” and  “the customer” I wonder what discrimination and prejudices this is causing. We’ve a long way to go societally on this issue and Maio is only addressing a small area of this with his campaign [he contacts every editor whose publication writes about mental health and the stigma] but imagine the difference insurance could truly make if it started talking instead of Doris at number 23, or Margaret from around the corner or even better Daniel, who had a non-fault accident and now has no access to a car, so he can no longer get to work to earn and feed his three kids and visit his mother in her care home at weekends.

What a world that would be.

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