11 months ago · Andy · Comments Off on How should we talk about mental health?
By Andy – Arch Care Services
It can be very confusing, knowing what we should and shouldn’t say. Certain words that we use all the time can accidentally end up offending someone, or may be old fashioned or out of date, and it can be difficult to keep track. People who suffer from a mental illness or people like me who work in the industry use these terms all the time, and it can sometimes be difficult for us to remember that not everyone knows the right thing to say, or what words they should avoid. Well, today I’m going to give you some advice about how to talk about mental illness without accidentally putting your foot in your mouth!
Let’s start by considering the most important thing of all; how do we describe a mental illness in the first place? There are lots of words that used to be used all the time but that we would advise everyone to avoid, as they sound quite old-fashioned and out of date, and in some cases are actually quite offensive! The one that we hear most often is that someone suffers with ‘mental problems’.
I can only assume that it comes from all the American media that we consume, because in America ‘mental problems’ is a fairly common phrase. We tend to avoid the use of words like ‘problem’ when it comes to describing a mental illness for the same reasons that we wouldn’t describe someone with diabetes as having a glucose problem, or someone with asthma as having a windpipe problem; it’s a little simplistic and vague. It also suggests that people who are mentally unwell have a ‘problem’ of some description, which is the kind of thing that we try to avoid. We also hear the term ‘mental disability’ quite regularly, which makes sense but is quite old fashioned. It also suggests that someone with a mental illness has reduced abilities of some kind, which isn’t always the case. Not the most offensive thing in the world, but not very accurate and probably best avoided.
It goes without saying that you should completely avoid terms like crazy, schizo or insane. They are very offensive and unpleasant and are used as a way to make fun of people. No one in the industry would ever use those words to describe the people that we support, and you shouldn’t either.
So, what is the correct thing to say? Well, you may have noticed that I’ve been using it all the way through this blog. We would always say that someone has a mental illness, they are mentally unwell, or they struggle with their mental health. Some people use the term psychological health instead of mental health, and that’s fine as well. These terms are used because they incorporate a number of different conditions and diagnosis’ and don’t lump everyone in together, and they also highlight the fact that it is an illness, and therefore something that is out of our control, can happen to anyone, and can be treated. This might change at some point in the future, but for now this is the best thing to say.
Now lets consider some things that you might say casually and innocently that are actually quite offensive to some people, and should probably be avoided if possible.
Have you ever described yourself or someone you know as being ‘a bit OCD’? Maybe they’re quite a clean person, or they like things to be organised. Maybe they like to use a specific font when they type up a documents, or they alphabetise their DVD collection. I imagine that most of you have, I imagine that I’ve done the same thing at some point, but I make a deliberate effort to avoid using this term incorrectly, as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is actually a very serious condition, and one which can have a massive impact on the lives of those that suffer from it. The symptoms of OCD can ruin lives, and are far more than just wanting things to be neat and tidy or not liking it when things aren’t organised properly. And how about bi-polar? Have you ever heard someone describe themselves as being bi-polar because they have mood swings, or because sometimes they feel annoyed for no identifiable reason? As with OCD, bi-polar disorder is a serious illness that can have serious symptoms, and is far more than just feeling like your mood is changeable. Organisations and individuals with these conditions have asked that these terms not be used casually as they may minimise the experiences of suffers, and we should do all we can to respect this. This isn’t to say that we should belittle experiences or assume that people are exaggerating when they use these terms, we should just try to be mindful about when we say them and whether they are really appropriate descriptions.
It’s also vital that we understand the difference between a mental illness and a learning disability. Sometimes people use the two terms as if they mean the same thing, or are parts of the same category of condition, and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Anybody can develop a mental illness at any time in their life, and it may be treated and then go away, whereas people will have a learning disability from birth, and it cannot be cured. The symptoms, behaviours and experiences of people who suffer from a mental illness are very, very different to those who have a learning disability, and confusing the two is quite offensive to some. It’s a bit like confusing asthma with blindness, the two are not comparable and it would be strange to suggest that they are.
Some of you may remember this encounter from the news:
As you can see, the woman approached Theresa May to ask what steps she planned to take to support people with learning disabilities, and in her response the Prime Minister made reference to planned changes to mental health provision. She was criticised following this incident specifically because she seemed to fail to understand the difference. Maybe this was nothing more than a slip of the tongue, but it feeds into a common misconception and is quite damaging to public perception when the Prime Minister is making such an easy mistake.
I know that this can sound complicated or difficult to understand. You may even be wondering what the big deal is, they are just words after all! Well, the words that we choose have power, and if not chosen and used carefully they can be hurtful, rude or thoughtless, even if that isn’t our intention. A small amount of effort can make a big difference, and can contribute towards tackling the stigma that people with mental illnesses face on a day to day basis.