As a nation, we need to talk about mental health more, and we need to reduce the stigma and shame surrounding these diagnoses. Given that mental health difficulties are expected to affect 1 in 4 of us, we have a long way to go. Regrettably though, what seems to have happened is that as awareness of mental health conditions has increased, so too has our misplaced use of the terminology. Rather than this contributing to a healthy and open dialogue of mental health concerns, it serves to minimise, trivialise and discredit. Arguably damaging the debate further.
The problem with our use of language in these scenarios is that we become desensitised and we minimise the experience held by those with mental health problems
Who here has heard phrases akin to the following, all of which are examples of phrases I’ve witnessed:
‘Oh man, I had a panic attack the other day because my car wouldn’t start’ – a feeling of panic not a legitimate expression of feeling acute and disabling anxiety with marked physical consequences.
‘I could do with having anorexia, just for a few weeks before my holiday’ – a desire to diet without understanding the life-threatening fear of food and weight experienced in anorexia nervosa.
‘I’m a bit OCD – I like all my mugs to face the same way’– an expression of fastidiousness, neatness, routine or attention to detail, rather than a debilitating experience of obsession and compulsion in multiple areas of life.
The problem with our use of language in these scenarios is that we become desensitised and we minimise the experience held by those with mental health problems.
‘I’m a bit depressed now, I wanted that job’ – when feeling sad and upset, rather than an overwhelming feeling of severe despondency or dejection.
These are but a few. Perhaps you’ve also heard some?
The problem with our use of language in these scenarios is that we become desensitised and we minimise the experience held by those with mental health problems. For example; say at work you are surrounded by colleagues saying they’re depressed whilst in the same hour are having a laugh and a joke and carrying on with work. Depressed is an adjective, but it is also a disease and it is widely used in place of describing frustration, sadness, hurt and more. The more we hear this the more we’ll fail to understand the debilitating experience of this clinical diagnosis, perhaps failing to understand the legitimacy of another colleague needing time off work, or work adjustments on account of it.
We create unrealistic expectations and perpetuate the mental-health-myth that sufferers should just be able to pull themselves together and get on with it. And this in turn, fuels the stigma and the shame. It discredits the experience and sufferers continue to feel unheard and unjustified in their experience. Where we can, perhaps we should use another adjective to describe those feelings. You can use this example to describe all those above, being ‘a bit OCD’ is a true slap-in-the-face of a person experiencing the crippling consequences of that illness.
I’m not sure as a society how we got here but by opening-up the debate on mental health only so far that we enabled the common recognition of terminology rather than understanding the experience or exactly what this means, I feel we haven’t come far enough. We seem to have readily supplanted naming feelings in favour of using disease classifications in their place, and as a society, now use these so fluidly in our conversations. It’s great that we now know what the named diseases are, but if we don’t know what they mean or show such little regard for it, have we really challenged the stigma that so many people face?
As a society we do this too when we describe suicide all the time. We continue to state that a person committed suicide. Suicide hasn’t been illegal since the 1960’s and yet we’re still describing it in this way. We don’t say that a person committed a heart attack. Or, using an example which people could argue is self-inflicted, such as an accidental drug overdose, in those cases, one hasn’t ‘committed an overdose’ either. In that example, the person died of an overdose, therefore why are people today not ‘dying of suicide’. It is possible to commit murder, rape, theft and so on…. Why do we perpetuate language with such insidious and arching negative connotations for suicide? In this way we subtly continue to emphasise blame and wrong-doing.
I feel as a society that we need to take a step back and learn to more frequently question the words that we use. We use language so freely and repeat phrases that we come to hear without always understanding their impact. In the same way that describing ‘Facebook rape’ or ‘Frape’ for a social media status posted by your friend without consent is an abhorrent minimisation of ‘rape’, we too need to question how we talk about mental health. Increase awareness, talk openly, start the dialogue, but remain mindful of terminology which rather than helping raise awareness and reduce stigma, can instead be contributing to it.