The Jane Pauley Stigma Position

I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to talk about this, but honestly the topic has been bothering me ever since reading the article.

Jane Pauley, the previous NBC broadcaster, has been open about dealing with bipolar disorder in her memoir Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue. That is something I have to give two thumbs up, because all I can really hope for is that people are more open about what they’ve dealt with in terms of mental illness. The more people that talk about it, the less ignorance there is, the less stereotypes ring true, and the more stigma is eradicated.


That’s what I believe anyway.

Over at the StarTribune website there is a video with a brief interview with Pauley, with a transcript of a small portion here:

You’re starting a campaign against the word ‘stigma?’

“I’d like us to stop using the word. What it describes is real. I think that we inadvertently amplify the power of those old stereotypes when we repeat the word. And for people who have mental health issues it makes us feel bad. Stigma [she said making a cut sign across her throat]. With regard to suicides in the military and not getting help because of the blah, blah, blah, including stigma. So the reference was accurate but we can attack attitudes that are misinformed and out of date. But if we describe what I have as a medical illness, which is hard, we will remove those attitudes but replace them with hope not fear. I’m against the word.

I was completely perplexed reading this, so if you’re as confused as I am I’d reccomend looking at the video. The video interview captures a bit more with the inflections in her voice, but I still sat for several minutes after watching it feeling confused.

In my own life, I have always classified stigma as a sort of fear that was attached to ignorance. Something that suggests repression for no apparent reason, and describes the gap that people place between themselves and those with mental illness because of that fear.

But from the dictionary:

Stigma: a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.

I have long moved past the idea that mental illness scratches a big mark into my forehead to warn people to stay away or somehow tarnishes my reputation, but there is obviously something that leaves people feeling uncomfortable and distant, and I think it is that something that gets pinned with the name stigma. 

Whatever it is, a mark on us of some kind, a gap between the open and the misinformed, or that lack of knowledge itself, Pauley stresses that it is real. Stigma is real, but she stresses that talking about it does more harm than good.

This is the part where I get very confused.

There have been a lot of gaps in American history where one group of people is discounted by another, but I don’t believe Women, African Americans, or homosexuals have made any progress in closing that gap by not talking about the gap. 

So there is a gap. Ok, I agree. But I think there are a lot of people who aren’t even aware that gap exists and really can’t begin to consider the issue until it comes up for them, whether that is talking about it, or being involved in someone’s life who is living with some part of it. That misinformation is beginning to fade, but I think we’ve still got a way to go.

Anyway, I’ve never had my feelings hurt by the word stigma, just by the actions associated with it. Without something to call those actions, I’d probably be more inclined to consider the people behind them assholes instead of just misinformed. That leaves me glad there is a word that describes the unjustified fear and discrimination I’ve been met with, and gives me a name for the wall I’m here to push for breaking down

If you want to read the entire transcript of Jane Pauley’s interview, you can see it here. 

5 responses to “The Jane Pauley Stigma Position

  1. One of the reasons I dislike PC crap is because people get so hung up on words. Changing them accomplishes little and even if new words are used, they will eventually take on the same connotations unless we change the feelings behind them. I am all for being open about MI and any other subject that makes people uncomfortable. I say, deal with it.

  2. bravingbipolar

    Yeah…I definitely feel the same as you about her response. I actually downloaded a same of that book on kindle but wasn’t impressed. Now Dr. Kay Jamison’s books, I highly recommend. Thank you for this post. I’m gonna have to check out the video.

  3. I recently saw a discussion on another blog about no longer using the word stigma to describe what is really discrimination ( I think the sentiment is similar to what Jane Pauley was discussing, but more clearly expressed. There’s a fine line between ignorant attitudes and discriminatory behavior, but I can definitely see the point that what stigma really boils down to is the discrimination. I also agree that the focus on stigma distracts us from the consequences of it, and we need to be more aggressive about addressing the consequences (through which attitudes may slowly shift?)

    Mental illness shouldn’t be considered disgraceful. Even in the dictionary (the one I looked up used mental illness as the first example of the word in use) stigma is practically synonymous with mental illness, and apparently that makes people feel like discrimination is acceptable.

    Well, fie on that.

  4. The way I interpret her comment is that we need to call mental illness what it is – a medical condition. We don’t use the word stigma when talking about cancer or diabetes or heart disease. I think she’s saying that if we keep reminding everyone that there is a stigma associated with mental illness then that stigma will never go away – because we keep reminding them that there is one!

    If we, on the other hand, ignore the word stigma and call it what it is (medical illness) we will in a sense retrained people to think differently about it. I don’t know if you have children, but to me it is in essence the same thing as ignoring bad behavior. The more attention you give to it the more the child is going to do it. The more you ignore it, the more likely the child is to drop the negative behavior. Hope that makes sense.

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