Don't call me 'mental' .... please.

I highly doubt this will be the only time I write on this subject, given the number of times I have banged on (and on and on) about it, time and time again. Language matters. Big time.

Language shapes how we see the world. This is true for everyone. And for everything. Our perceptions and expectations are shaped by the words we hear and use. They are part of the underpinning framework of our lives. The words we choose and the meaning we attach to them influence so much. Our feelings. Our attitudes. Our beliefs. Words can makes us feel happy, beautiful, ecstatic. Words can also make us feel miserable, angry, guilty.

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”  George Orwell.

But the great thing is that we have a choice over our words. We have full control over the language we use to describe ourselves, others and the world around us.

Historically, the world around us appears to have found mental health conditions and experiences difficult to confront, treat and talk about. It wasn’t that long ago that people who experienced mental illness were abused, removed entirely from society, subjected to un-anesthetised electric shock treatments and had parts of their brains removed through lobotomy procedures. And with these treatments and the complex issues regarding explanations of mental conditions came a range of language to describe such people: ‘lunatic’, ‘psycho’, ‘neurotic’, ‘maniac’ etc. Luckily with the progresses of psychology and psychiatry in both better understanding and treating mental illness, the language has changed over time, with the words used expressing the prevailing views of society.

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going”.  Rita Mae Brown.

But I think we’ve still got a way to go. Unfortunately the use of particular labels to describe people and their behaviours is still hanging around. The problem is that the use of a label often implies a separation of ‘us’ from ‘them’. And this separation can quite easily lead to the belief that ‘they’ are fundamentally different from ‘us’ and that ‘they’ even are the thing they are labelled. ‘They’ can become so different from those who do not share a negative label, so that ‘they’ can appear to be a completely different sort of people. Our use of language is revealing regarding the use of labels to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Like I mentioned, I think this is improving, however for a long time it has been commonplace to label someone a “schizophrenic” instead of saying he or she is a person with schizophrenia. For physical illnesses things are handled differently and people will usually say, a person has cancer. The person with cancer remains one of ‘us’ and has an attribute, while the ‘schizophrenic’ becomes one of ‘them’ and is completely defined by the label we affix to the person. In this way, language can be a powerful source and sign of stigmatisation.

It intrigues me how people use labels to describe their experiences of mental illness. When I was working as a psychologist, it was something I would challenge clients on and the relationship between their choice of words and recovery was fascinating. When I was a patient in a psychiatric hospital, it was one of the things I most commonly ranted about to other patients in groups as to how I thought they should speak about their own mental illness.

From my experience, the three most commonly asked questions (with common answers) that are asked between inpatients in a mental health facility appear to be:

  1. What’s your name?
    1. My name is Sam/Andrew/La-ah
  2. Where are you from?
    1. I’m from Brisbane/Lismore/Timbuktu
  3. What are you here for?
    1. I’m depressed/anxious/bipolar/psychotic/crazy etc.

More often than not, patients described themselves in terms of their illness. So not only does the wider community place these labels on ‘us’, but sometimes it comes from the individual themselfl. But mental illnesses are not adjectives. And they are not ‘us’. I am not defined entirely by a disorder. Just as no one would ever say “I’m cancerous” or “I’m urinary tract infection”.

So what’s the best thing to do when talking about someone else’s mental illness? Be respectful. Taking the time and making the effort to show respect for people who may have different backgrounds, life experiences and cultures from our own can really improve our ability to communicate. Maybe spend some time becoming aware of your own beliefs, stereotypes and biases about people who have a mental health condition. Be aware that certain words and labels can hurt.

Remember that all people are people first and foremost. Rather than describe the person as their illness, describe them as a person experiencing a certain something. E.g. Sam is experiencing a mental health episode. Remember that a lot of mental illnesses are treatable and manageable and as such may pass. Probably best then not to stick a label on someone  for a condition that may not even hang around.

And why not ask your loved one how they’d like the mental illness to be referred to? That too can work.

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world” Ludwig Wittgenstein.


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