Is how we use language harming our discussions of mental health?

Mental Health Matters

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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. 

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  • Oh I agree with a lot of this.

    My first spell of depression, prompted by then-undiagnosed PTSD, came as a teenager. It was the late 90s and very few adults I came across (including many healthcare professionals) could talk openly about mental illness with any real candour. For my peers, it was even more alien. And so I’m pleased that things have moved on in the past 20 years and that people can now be more open about their own battles but like you, I worry that we have gone too far the other way. We seem to be increasingly competitive as people and with that has come a weird tendency to bandy around clinical terms like some kind of badge of honour. This isn’t what “breaking the stigma” is about; this is trivialising conditions that are destructive, debilitating and sometimes fatal.

    The only bit of your piece that I disagree with a little is that I feel like a lot of the time the term “mental health” is used when “mental illness” might be more appropriate. I think this is true in a wider context too… talking about what we can do to improve our “mental health” is relevant (in the same way as we might talk about exercise and diet for general good physical health) but when we talk about specific conditions, I wonder if “mental illness” is more representative of the seriousness of the subject. Just my thoughts!

    • I think that’s a really valid point Harriet – that perhaps they shouldn’t be interchangeable but mental illness as a diagnosis and mental health as a generalist wellbeing term. Thanks for making me think about that too

  • My friend and I were discussing a few weeks ago the generational ‘buzzwords’ that are used in regards to the world of mental health.

    We were saying for how the generation above us, ‘stress’ Was used so frequently. a serious reason to be signed off work, something not to be taken lightly – a catch and coverall term to address a myriad of symptoms.

    For our generation it is without a doubt ‘anxiety’. ‘Feeling anxious’ is a term used by so many people for a range of feelings and differing symptoms, often self diagnosed, and almost the ‘must have’ thing.

    Please don’t mistake this for a sweeping statement, I don’t mean it in that way and I am not belittling the very real anxiety diagnoses across the country. But for those of us who fall into the millennial category I think it is all too easy to claim anxiety, without digging to the true cause of the problem.

    Or, on the flip side, we are so hyper aware of whats going on in our heads we are able to identify and act upon the feelings that present themselves, but then is it easy to blame our actions or lack thereof on this word that we have attached to ourselves?

    To be off work with ‘stress’ in 2018 almost feels like a cop out, I think because of the overuse in our parents generation. How can anyone be signed off with stress? I wonder if in 30 years the same will be said for anxiety. (Again, I’m playing to the gallery here in my use of words).

    Sorry for this stream of consciousness; when I started to think about it I thought of more and more things!

  • I find this all very interesting and despite having quite a cavalier attitude towards language I do think about it often. I think depression and anxiety can both be used to describe normal emotional reactions to life as well as mental illnesses and of course there is quite a spectrum between the two! I feel that it’s important that we remember that life is hard and feeling unhappy is a part of life. I read that half of teenage girls have symptoms of a mental illness today and I think that pathologising sadness and worry is unhealthy. This is where the well-being distinction comes in I suppose. I have PTSD and have become increasingly aware of how bastardised the term is becoming over the last couple of years. People seem to use it when they mean that something awful has happened to them and they are traumatised. Trauma can change you, it can change the way you feel about yourself, it can make it seem like the whole world has tilted on it’s axis. Trauma can also make you feel anxious about something similar happening and make you feel upset whenever you’re reminded of it. All of this is awful but it’s not PTSD. PTSD is a very specific set of symptoms caused by a processing error in your brain. I feel that it undermines it as serious diagnosis as well as pathologising what is a normal part of human existence. But it feels like once the genie is out of the bottle with these things it’s hard to get it back!

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