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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: It's time to replace the word 'stigma' with 'sanism'


This op-ed is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.

For years, mental health campaigns have run on a “break the stigma” slogan. They’re well-meaning, and there’s more room for people to be vulnerable now than decades ago. Even so, that privilege hasn’t been equally extended to everyone, especially not survivors of severe mental illnesses. Without pinpointing that dynamic and centering the voices of those survivors, mental health campaigns are running on an “All Lives Matter”-type rhetoric, which does nothing but uphold sanism.

Notice that I used the word “sanism” and not “stigma?” That’s because the former provokes critical analyses on how oppression has influenced the state of mental health care, while the latter does not. Sanism identifies how attitudes surrounding mental health are connected to oppression, including how institutions have committed human rights violations against survivors of severe mental illnesses. Comparatively, “stigma” is a broad term that can be applied to loads of topics, political or not.

Sanism is a term that refers to systemic discrimination against those perceived or diagnosed with mental disorders.

As of the time I'm writing this op-ed, the word “stigma” yielded 492 results when searching The Daily Tar Heel’s website. It’s been used to describe attitudes towards mental health, but also those towards free school lunches, black cat Halloween costumes, eating alone and thrifting. Meanwhile, the word “sanism” yielded zero results, likely making this article the first one ever to use it on The DTH website. 

I texted a friend the other day about why I think the word sanism should replace stigma. She realized this after thinking about it: The word stigma minimizes the larger picture and doesn’t focus on why the structures exist in the first place. She also pinpointed the irony of using that word given that mental health advocates have pushed for inclusive language. She’s 100 percent correct. The even bigger irony is that advocates and organizations claim to be “breaking the stigma” while ignoring that survivors of severe mental illnesses still risk ostracism for being vulnerable. 

Survivors can lose job opportunities and friends and familial support, face police brutality, have their bodily integrity violated in psychiatric facilities or even file for bankruptcy after a psychiatric hospital stay. All because they voice vulnerability in honest terms. Survivors at the receiving end of those actions are not facing “stigma.” They’re facing discrimination that transcends entire institutions. And that form of discrimination is sanism. 

Popular mental health and suicide prevention campaigns have prioritized "awareness" and "education" over the dismantlement of discrimination that survivors of severe mental illnesses continue to face. They cement that prioritization by refusing to call “mental health stigma” by its real name. 

If mental health and suicide prevention organizations are actually serious about advancing their causes, they should not be focused on “breaking the stigma.” They should be focused on anti-sanism. Anti-sanism is the only way this mental health crisis will be resolved. Organizations and advocates can embark on it right now by getting blatant on how sanism, not stigma, fuels oppression towards survivors of severe mental illnesses.

— Krista Savage-White, UNC junior

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