THE BLOG

We Need To Change How We Talk About Mental Health

14/12/2016 11:13

Until relatively recently, mental illness was described in law as 'lunacy' which is a term dating from the days when it was genuinely believed that mental illness was caused by the influence of the moon as the word stems from the Latin lunaticus, meaning 'of the moon'. Sadly, popular perception and representation of mental illness hasn't come all that far since Victorian, or even Roman times.

All too often, the only coverage we see of mental illness in the news is when the protagonist of some unconscionable act - be it a white gunman attacking a college campus in America or shooting an MP in Yorkshire or a German pilot choosing to commit suicide while at the helm of a passenger aircraft - is described as 'mentally ill' which is in itself an unhelpfully vague and wide ranging term.

This manifests in other ways, such as people characterising any politician who they disagree with as being 'mentally ill' or 'crazy' as if only someone who was dangerously insane could hold a differing political or world view.

Combined with the Conservative government's social security cuts and persistent and disingenuous 'strivers vs. skivers' narrative this creates an atmosphere where being mentally ill implies that you are at best a drain on society and are also likely to be a danger to your fellow citizens' safety.

Such an atmosphere serves to dehumanise mentally ill people and enables those who seek to attack them, either directly or by removing the support mechanisms and protective legislation secured by a century of disability activism.

It is thus understandable that despite roughly a quarter of the population experiencing some form of mental ill health in a given year, a great many people don't dare to admit, even to themselves, that they might be one of them.

As such, many cases of mental ill health go undocumented, except in part that they can be inferred in the terrifying male suicide statistics, of course. Those who do seek assistance find themselves facing an uphill battle to be taken seriously by friends, family and doctors, let alone employers or the increasingly antagonistic Department of Work & Pensions.

As such, it should be clear that we need to change how we talk about mental illness, mostly in that we need to start actually talking about it, rather than rolling 'mental illness' out as a sticker to avoid more complicated discussions, with the inference that 'they're a lunatic' is the end of the matter and explains everything.

Now, I come from a generation and belong to a subculture which tends to use terms which might be considered mental health pejoratives as positives. For example, one of my favourite club nights is called Asylum and I've been known to use terms like 'sick' and 'mental' as positives. As such I'm clearly not talking about some sort of proscriptive ban on using any terms which might be seen as a mental health slur under any circumstances, although as ever being understanding to people who are sensitive to a given term is nothing more than good manners.

However, I would love to see people talk more openly and be less judgmental about mental health.

It would be good to not have my depression and anxiety equated with the hate speech espoused by demagogues. It would be better if people's first reaction to being told that a colleague is suffering from mental illness wasn't jokes about the men in the white coats coming to get them followed by insinuations that they are just lying to get some time off work. It would be nice if people didn't seem to think that having autism is somehow worse than dying of preventable disease. It would be great if people didn't tell you that your medication is a crutch and that everything can be solved with positive thinking and a walk in the woods.

It would be ideal if we could remember that every depressed, schizophrenic, anxious, biopolar, autistic, neurodiverse, and yes, even psychopathic or sociopathic person is still just that, a person - someone's son or daughter, cousin, partner, friend - and acted accordingly. After all, it's almost certain that if you're fortunate enough to not suffer from any form of mental illness, then someone you love has or is right now suffering.

Mentally ill people are people, not a punchline or a patsy. Lets have a conversation on those terms.

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