As first seen in Tincture
Conversations about mental health are starting. Conversations that are long overdue, considering mental health problems affect 1 in 4 people. And doubtless they are beginning to chip away at the stigma associated with mental health problems — but that stigma is still monumental and a significant barrier to people seeking or accessing help.
Yet what of the language we use in speaking about mental health problems?
‘A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet’, Shakespeare said.
While this may be true, discussing the rose only as a ‘green stick with thorns spiked sharply enough to draw blood topped with a reproductive organ’ instantly changes the tone of the conversation. This language shapes the way you see the rose, and how you use it. It no longer seems like such a good idea to send them to someone on Valentine’s Day.
The language of mental health problems certainly has a thorny legacy. It’s a past we must shed and overcome if we are to really break down stigma on a deep, effective and lasting level. This past still pervades and influences the common, everyday language used for mental health problems. The words used are steeped in the blood and suffering of social injustice and religious and political dogma, and can’t fail but to leave a shadow of negativity, prejudice and fear lingering from the Dark Ages.
Historically, some religious beliefs were considered to be symptoms of mental health problems. Or mental health problems were seen as demonic possessionor witchcraft — at the time the vestiges of paganism were being branded as absolute evil throughout Europe. The affected were burned at the stake or driven from villages. The term lunacy dates from 1540s to describe cyclical insanity linked to phases of the moon. Indeed, lyncanthropy — being a werewolf — could be considered one our oldest endemic psychoses in Europe.Or more simply women being characterized as ‘hysterical’ since it emanated from the womb. And the world was seen as flat.
Fast forward a century or two and we’re still actively failing to help those in need. Take suicide for example. It’s commonly referred to today as being ‘committed’. Crimes are also ‘committed’, so it’s not hard to see the negative associations present in the use of this word. In fact, suicide was illegal until the Suicide Act of 1961 was passed. It was quite feasible for someone to fail an attempt at suicide only to be charged with the attempted murder of self and punished accordingly. It’s sobering to think that this change in the law was little more than 50 years ago. Yet while the legal position of suicide has shifted, the language associated with it clearly has not. Somewhat starker is the 2013 statistic that suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 20–34 in England and Wales at 24% of all deaths and 13% of deaths in the 35–49 year age group.
Every time a celebrity or public figure dies because of underlying depression and/or addiction, we persistently talk about them ‘losing the battle to their demons’. This victimizes the person, undermines hope of recovery for others, excuses society from blame and reinforces the truly ‘crazy’ notion that a malevolent unseen foe or force has taken them.
By contrast, other areas of mental health are trivialized by language. Anti-depressants are patronizingly and inaccurately referred to as ‘happy pills’. And words like mad, crazy, nutter, loon, retard, bonkers, schizo are used daily, from playground to boardroom. Television has long indoctrinated and socialized our children to the stigma and straight jackets of mental illness and more recently social media is undermining self-esteem and stoking those fires of low grade, chronic anxiety at global scale.
Charities such as Time to change, Rethink and Mind along with some media outlets are helping to raise awareness of the impact of language on the discussions of mental health. People with mental health problems are the most discriminated group in the UK, according to YouGov. The story in the USA is similar. Language is a powerful way to shape attitudes and behaviours. It’s done an effective job of contributing to stigma that has helped hold mental health conversations back decades.
It’s long overdue that we use thoughtful, relevant language in order to effectively advance them. Or as Da Vinci said way back in the early 1500s, where arguably the language of mental health is still stuck:
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.”
co-author: Vernon Bainton