“Rules” for Talking About Mental Illness

Maybe I want to call myself mentally ill

Image by Lockie from Pixabay

Just to get things started, I will say that I am “mentally ill”, I “suffer from” depression, and I’m a little bit “crazy”, although the degree varies over time.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, there are a lot of people who like to take a stand against language that is thought to stigmatize mental illness. But when you get to the point where we’re not even “supposed to” talk about the term “mental illness”, it can all start getting rather ridiculous.

Person-first language

This is the idea that you should talk about the person rather than the illness, so someone is a person with bipolar disorder rather than they are bipolar. My personal take is that we have the right to define our own identity however we see fit (I recently wrote a post about mental illness and identity). At the same time, I don’t think it’s particularly appropriate for other people to try to define someone’s identity, whether that’s in terms of illness, gender, sexuality, culture, or what have you. I probably wouldn’t refer to someone as being bipolar unless I knew they identified that way.

Regardless, though, I don’t think anyone should be taking issue with people self-identifying as “I am bipolar”.

How to talk about suicide

Some people take issue with the term “commit suicide”. However, if you read enough blog posts, you’ll find plenty of mental health bloggers dropping that term in, probably all of them doing so without even giving it a second thought.

My take on it is this — if you asked 100 people if “commit suicide” is something they say to imply a criminal act, I bet at least 99 would say no. Would it be offensive to talk about suicide with the intention that it should be a crime? Sure. I just don’t think anyone is using it that way, and I think there are many common phrasings in the English language that begin to lose their literal meaning when paired in that way. As a result, I’m not sure that this is the right thing to be devoting so much time and attention to, as it’s doubtful that it ends up changing people’s underlying beliefs.

What does matter, though, is media reporting of suicides, but that has nothing to do with political correctness. Suicide contagion is a very real and very dangerous phenomenon, and media outlets need to be responsible in their reporting to avoid sparking a reactive increase in suicides.

How people say we should talk about mental illness

An article in the HuffPost says that instead of calling someone a patient, we should call them someone “who receives help/treatment for mental health or substance use problem or a psychiatric disability.” Wow, try saying that five times fast without looking.

Mental Health America says it’s “hurtful” to call someone bipolar or schizophrenic. Except who’s actually feeling hurt? Doing a quick scan of their board of directors list, none mention in their blurb excerpt that they have a mental illness. If they’re the ones getting their feelings hurt, how much does that actually matter?

Time to Change says that we can’t talk about “the mentally ill” or say people are “suffering from” a mental illness. That’s nice, but I’ve done a shit-ton of suffering over the years, thank you very much. It’s my mentally ill party and I’ll suffer if I want to.

An article on HealthPartners.com cautions that we should not use “‘mental illness’ as an aggregate term”, and instead should use “mental illnesses” or “a mental illness”. That’s some pretty serious semantic nit-picking.

Science Daily explains “why you should never use the term ‘mentally ill.’” Too bad, so sad, I already used it at the beginning of this post.

If we really want to get creative about not saying “mental illness”, though, we can turn to Mindfreedom.org, which suggests that I could be called a “Consumer/Survivor/eX-inmate (CSX)”, “person who identifies as a survivor of psychiatric atrocities”, or my personal favourite, “different”. Sometimes creativity is a good thing, other times, you just want to be different.

It’s my party and I’ll be crazy if I want to

One thing I don’t understand, because linguistically it makes no sense, is using “mental health” as a synonym for “mental illness”. Part of why it puzzles me is if you were to substitute “physical health” and “physical illness”, people’s understanding of the English language suddenly returns. “Mental illness” is not a four-letter word, and it seems to me that beating around the bush is more stigmatizing than openly acknowledging that mental illness is a thing.

That little pet peeve aside, my biggest issue is when “normal” people say things that minimize the “suffering” of the “mentally ill”. Allow us to feel like crap, and keep your judgy-pants to yourself. There are more than enough people on that bandwagon already.

I think what it really comes down to is what researcher Patrick Corrigan talked about in his book The Stigma Effect — stigma is not rooted in words; it exists with or without them. The labels are mostly a convenient place to hang the stigma hat on. Sure, tackling the more egregious terms is a good thing, but focusing on nitpicking means losing sight of the real underlying issues.

Perhaps what’s more important than telling people how to talk about mental illness is getting them to talk about it in the first place.

So if I want to call myself crazy, mentally ill, depressive, or whatever, that should be the least of anyone’s concerns.

Originally published at https://mentalhealthathome.org on October 21, 2019.

Written by

Mental health blogger | MH Nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle | mentalhealthathome.org

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