Language and Mental Health

There’s two articles that I’m recommending people read. The first is from the Toronto Star details how we talk about mental illness and perhaps how we should talk about it.

To wit:

You don’t say someone is cancer, you say someone has cancer,” says Frances Jewell, executive-director of the Mental Health Rights Coalition. “So, you shouldn’t say someone is schizophrenic, either.” People have illnesses and diseases, but their identity is not defined by it.

The article also touches on colloquialisms used in the general public such as lunatic, crazy, nuts, etc.

Colloquially, the meanings of these words have evolved to become derogatory, yet primarily in a light-hearted way. CAMH CEO Catherine Zahn says for the most part, it’s harmless. “It’s important that we don’t use words denigrating illness or difference, but I wouldn’t correct someone if they didn’t mean harm. There are so many more important things we need to focus on.”

Counterpoint to this article is one in the Halifax Herald.

Politically correct language is hurting, not helping, Canadians with mental illness by actually reinforcing stigma, says an advocate for those with mental illness.

John Roswell of the Digby Clare Mental Health Volunteers Association spoke recently about a topic he is passionate about — how we refer to mental illness in every-day conversation.

Many people have negative attitudes about people with mental illness and use politically correct language to avoid discussing mental illness in precise terms, Roswell said recently.

I think both are worth reading. For me I’m kinda in the middle on what is generally referred to as political correctness. I think that how we talk about mental illness does affect the situation. I tend to use the phrase I happen to have schizophrenia because it shapes my approach to the illness, though I am very much a “to each their own” type of person. Words have power and have meaning and how we choose them are often more important than we think.

But I do agree with Mr. Roswell that we run the risk of buzz-wording the whole thing up so the conversation is meaningless. I am not sure that the average person on the street with limited understanding of mental health issues would understand what I meant if I told them I was a mental health services consumer. He’s right though that the primary goal is to change attitudes. I think that choice of words (no matter how well thought out) can at best move us a couple of inches forward. I think that the best way to move forward is to push to “normalize” schizophrenia. That includes pushing success stories, talking about the problems we face, making the public aware that there are resources for them, and encouraging prominent people like Lisa Riatt (a federal cabinet minister) to talk about their struggles with mental health and stigma.

I have no doubt that to change the attitudes of the public will take decades. I am still encouraged that I see this discussion in the papers today. I am not sure I would have when I was first diagnosed.


About Neil

I happen to have paranoid schizophrenia. But that is only a small part of who I am. I define me, not my illness. I always try and choose hope and choose to be a better person, though like all people, I have more than a few failures. Some have been rather spectacular.
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One Response to Language and Mental Health

  1. Pingback: A Writer or a Hack? : 30 Days of Truth « As the Pendulum Swings

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