Let’s re-language the way we talk about mental illness

Mental-Health-StigmaIt seems in nearly every pop-psych article these days, you see words like “fix,” “struggle,” “stop,” “suffer,” “get rid of” to describe ways of helping you in some area of your life. I’ll be honest too, I’ve been guilty of using these words. I try to catch myself from saying them, but I would be lying if some didn’t fall through the cracks.

The issue is that it can feel like you’re putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. It can send the message that it’s easy to “fix it” and you just need the tools that are in this article. However, if it were that easy, we would have all stopped “struggling” a long time ago and “fixed” ourselves. Mental illness is not always something that we can get rid of with a snap of a finger. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and even depression all have some level of biological underpinnings that make people more vulnerable to these disorders. So when we use words like “struggle,” “fix,” and “stop” it can feel like we’re marginalizing these issues to those with them. It’s not to say that some things can’t be helped, tools can’t be provided, and improvements can’t be made, but let’s be mindful that it may not be easy. Often times with mental illness and life, in general, it’s not so much about “getting rid of” something life throws at you as it is about accepting and managing it in the best way possible.

Another word commonly used is “suffer” and that people with mental illness are “suffering.” However, I’d like to broaden your mind a little bit on this word by giving you two individual examples of what people say about the words we use. Last week I went to the Saks Institute‘s 2-day symposium on Mental Health Stigma and College Students. This institute was founded by Elyn Saks, who is a professor at USC in the Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry departments. She also happens to live with schizophrenia. She is a true role model for people who are not just living with mental illness but who are thriving with mental illness. She is a model for those who need not let their mental illness define them. You can hear more about her journey through this TED talk.

At this symposium, they spoke a great deal about how we should talk about mental illness. One of the panelists was a PhD student living with depression. She spoke about how our society should stop using the word “suffering” because what is suffering to one person is not suffering to another. If you’re not living with it, how can you say someone is suffering?

Another panelist at this event, Kay Jamison, was a Professor in Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Jamison received her PhD from UCLA and went on to study Bipolar disorder – something she has dealt herself since early adulthood. She discussed her disdain for the word “stigma,” as “stigma” has even become “stigmatized.” She preferred the word “discrimination.”

The real problem is that when we use strong words like the ones I talked about, they can give the sense that there is something wrong with you or that there is serious problem. What if therapy was not so much about fixing a part of you that’s broken as it was about removing the unnecessarily stuff that has been added. It’s a shedding more than it is an adding. It’s a shedding of old patterns. It’s a shedding of parts of you that are no longer helpful. The fears and patterns that once survived to protect you may not be hindering you.

The bottom line is that each person has their own sensitivies and their own uses of language. It may feel like you have to be tip-toeing around the issue, but it’s not meant to be that at all. It’s just meant to raise your awareness to what you are saying. No one is ever going to be perfect and never offend anyone. However, we can all raise our level of consciousness to realize the power of our words in the way we talk about these issues. Our words carry messages and meanings.

The truth is that no one (or at least very few people) go out into the world and think to themselves “Today, I’m going to try to hurt someone and say something mean.” However, just by virtue of us all talking, something is going to offend someone. And that’s not our intention. Let us all clarify our intention and know our limitations in how we speak about what we know. With that said, if I said something to offend anyone in this blog, I apologize. That was not my intention and what I said may not reflect your experience. However, I’d love to hear about your experience! Feel free to email us or leave a comment.

As one panelist said during the symposium, as many mentally ill criminals that have been portrayed in the media, there should also be the Elyn Saks and Kay Jamison’s of the world. Let’s begin to widen our view of how we think about people with mental illness.

Related links:

Rubin Khoddam, Clinical Psychology PhD student at University of Southern California, founder of Psych Connection

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Categories: Blogs by Rubin

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