Words Matter: Talking about mental health

Words Matter: Talking about mental health

Mubanga Mweemba discusses the language we use to talk about mental health.

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Image: Flickr

“W ith the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the forefront of the Heads Together campaign and the recent popularity of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, dialogues surrounding mental health have been on the incline. The topic is on our minds, yet there remains a legion of misconceptions surrounding mental health, adding to the overall treatment gap.

Our flippant usage of words like ‘depressed’ and ‘OCD’, even terms like ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’, are indicative of the lack of mental health knowledge in society as a whole. Our misinformed understanding of the language we use to describe our moods or behaviors is not intentional, but nonetheless, the repercussions are harmful. You can feel depressed, even sad, for a period of time and it may not be clinical depression. You can be particular about organisation and order, but those suffering from OCD have obsessive thoughts that lead to compulsive behaviours which not limited to organisation and cleanliness. Being ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ are not quirks in one’s personality. Words do matter, it’s why mental health professionals have strayed from using terms like ‘insane’, ‘mad’, ‘hysteria’ and ‘neurosis’ — they do not serve to accurately describe the complex realities of those suffering from mental illness.

Mental Health: https://www.flickr.com/photos/125892716@N05/14419441390

Our problem is that we simultaneously understate and overstate, never getting close to a true understanding of mental illness. Our society’s perception is that it’s either a casual but overdramatic affliction or an extreme bout of symptoms, rendering the individual incapable of living a regular life as they must be dangerous and irrevocably broken in some way. If this is the image that shapes mental illness, it makes it hard for people to reach out and seek help. Many feel misunderstood because of the stigma attached to their experiences.

Words matter, but so do the people

There is also a growing sense of nihilism prevalent particularly in our generation. Suffering from a burgeoning amount of stress, we joke about death and destructive behaviours and in a way, I don’t really condemn that — it’s a very helpful way to unload the burdens of our lives that can often make us feel alone. Humour connects people and helps clarify difficult areas within ourselves that we have been unable to articulate. But it would be remiss to be thinking humorously about mental illness without the necessary help and resources needed to overcome such problems in our lives. Words matter, but so do the people. Having celebrities talk about mental health is well-intentioned and brings awareness to the subject, but the day to day conversation within our local and immediate communities is lacking. Distant figures make the concept and the experience of mental illness feel distant, and what people need is to feel less alone.

We standardise these things because we’ve been fed exaggerated and mythical interpretations of what it is like to deal with mental illness, mainly from mainstream media

It’s not always easy to tell when the person making a comment relating to mental health is being affected or otherwise. But it’s dependent on the situation, as all mental illnesses are not the same — the way people offhandedly talk about OCD, schizophrenia, anorexia or bi-polar is perhaps different to the way people talk about depression and anxiety; we are more familiar with the latter with mixed anxiety and depression being the most common mental disorder in Britain. However, mental health encompasses a wide spectrum of experiences, even within each different category. Its not static, its not definitive, its relative, which is part of the reason we don’t always realise when someone needs help. We standardise these things because we’ve been fed exaggerated and mythical interpretations of what it is like to deal with mental illness, mainly from mainstream media. Despite the fact that one in four adults and one in ten children will experience mental health problems every year, what we have not yet done is to represent mental illness as normal.

So whilst we may have the vocabulary for mental health, we do not yet have a comprehensive definition. We have conversations surrounding the issue, but there is still a lot that isn’t being said and much more that needs to be spoken about.

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