Terminology is another word to describe the secret language that we use to communicate with others in the know and thus excluding those not in the know. It provides an effective barrier to keep out anybody not in that particular world and, in the case of mental health, I believe that it can fuel discrimination and stigma. When we discuss mental health and discrimination we talk often about being open to the world and then use a language that closes the world off. Labelling people and accepting labels creates an artificial ghetto that is partly our own making.
When I saw my last psychiatrist (who was a very forward thinking consultant and researcher) we agreed from the beginning to use a mutual language. A lot of what I was experiencing were things he encountered rarely or had never encountered so we came up with a language that suited us both. I could tell him I’d had a storm in my head and he knew that I’d had a very rapid and violent mood swing upwards. They are so extreme that suicide is only moments away throughout the whole episode, my forehead gets hot and afterwards I am so exhausted I can sleep for up to 16 hours at a time. Saying that in a descriptive way takes time so being able to say, “I’ve had storm” was plain, simple and understandable.
Language between people with mental health problems can cause problems. I’m not that keen on the word “sufferer” because it has unpleasant suggestions of being a victim and I don’t like the term “mentally ill” because having a mental illness does not mean you are mentally ill. I can’t think of much that empowers people less than the suggestion that you are a victim or permanently ill especially when you see yourself as neither. I tend not to pick up the “in speak” in the “mental health community” (another phrase that makes me grind my teeth) because I don’t want to talk in a secret language, I outgrew that once I stopped being a child.
One of the more contentious phrases is that of “committing suicide” especially when used in the media. It’s often felt that the term “taken their own life” should be used but this, to my mind at least, seems to suggest that there is a shame associated with suicide. To carry through suicide one commits to an act and therefore it’s a phrase that is descriptive and accurate. People seem to feel sensitive towards it in the same way that some rape victims cringe at the word “rape” even when used legitimately in different ways. As someone who has tried to commit suicide I have no objections to see it being used in the media as long as the story surrounding it is sensitively handled. I think stories about suicide should carry help line phone numbers but we all know how precious column inches are.
One of the changes in recent times in Coroners Courts is that suicide is less and less recorded as a verdict in favour of the “narrative” verdict. Surely this adds to the stigma around the word? If we avoid using a term it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. It does and our time and energy should be used in education of what it means and not avoidance of the word.
I have short term memory problems because of the way the mental health problem that I have affects my brain so I don’t particularly want to have to speak in two different languages in order to speak to different sets of people. If we’re all English speakers then why do we have to separate and divide by the way we use language? A recent example was someone asking me recently if a medication was typical or atypical. I had no idea what she meant but it turns out it’s just a more complicated way of saying old style and new style medication though which is which I have no idea. Simplicity in language is not a bad thing.
I find blogs and articles that are over long and unnecessarily complicated in their use of language defeat me. I‘m not stupid in fact I’m quite clever but I don’t need to display my intelligence in a way that prevents other people from understanding what I’m saying. It serves nobody well, if at all. Simple and effective language breaks down barriers or at least makes them easier to step over.
A phrase that rankles many people, especially those who have bouts of depression, is “chin up”. I interpret this to mean “approach challenges with fortitude and strength” or “fake it until you make it” which have long been deemed acceptable. It’s not offensive if it’s meant well or expressed inadequately.
There will always be disagreements about terminology and what seem to be private and secretive languages but changing phrases without using the opportunity to educate is pointless and, quite often, the explanations given don’t go far enough.
We have to accept that, for some things, there will never be a mutually agreeable language but we cannot tell people how they can or cannot use words even if they are in the media but what we do have to do is to use those opportunities to speak up, to explain, to educate and enlighten. If we do not do this then we are guilty of locking ourselves in the ghetto that we accuse other people of building.