They are not just words

There’s an interesting end of the year article that came across my feed from NBC news about the harm that’s caused by our colloquial use of mental health terms to describe people in a pejorative fashion for abnormal behaviour. It’s a good read and an excerpt won’t do it justice. So, as a sample:

“When people use (psychiatric labels) in daily language, I think it is intended to deliver some sort of emotional context,” Maidenberg said. “It says that there is something wrong with you.”

Likewise, dubbing a generally moody person as “bipolar” or “schizo” is akin to saying that periodically fickle frames of mind are a clear hint of severe mental illness. In reality, schizophrenia causes people with the condition to experience delusions, hear voices and suffer from extremely disorganized thinking. And by definition, bipolar disorder includes periods of mania, marked by rapid speaking, racing thoughts and inflated self esteem, followed by crushing bouts of depression.

Bipolar disorder “is very different from the day-to-day mood swings that most people experience,” said Dr. Charles Reynolds, a professor of geriatric psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “There are very distinct differences between personality traits and (mental illnesses).”

There are always tensions between a technical definition and how it is used colloquially. But there are many problems in using mental health terms to describe erratic or unusual behaviour. Not least because of the usually pejorative use of such words like “schizo” and the fact that“weird” behaviour is not necessarily the result of a medical condition.

Perhaps what most disheartens me is that such unfortunate ill-applied uses emphasize that something is wrong with a person and completely ignore the central fact that there are positive treatments for many serious mental illnesses. There are even instances of those with mental illnesses avoiding treatment so that they don’t have to wear the label of their illness.  

I think that the image of mental illness has improved since I was diagnosed. My own self image has improved dramatically. I do think that we have a long way to go, especially with the more “scary” mental illnesses. That’s why we have to talk, have to share and most importantly live our lives without fear or shame.

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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