Natasha Phillips explores how society exacerbates Mental Health stigma with language
Awareness of mental illness has seen considerable progress over the past decade, and yet, language used to describe and classify mental disorders is still being misused. “Mentally-ill” may have the most synonyms of any word in the English dictionary, and so many of them have damaging and undesirable connotations. “Demented”, “insane”, “lunatic”, “maniac” and “unsound” are just a few examples – none of which are useful in describing any aspect of mental health and all of which contribute to the exclusion and ridicule of the people they are used to describe. And yet how many of us are guilty of using this language? Most of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid because constant use has led to normalisation of these words. This reflects a lack of understanding of mental health issues despite its high prevalence across the population.
Discussions about the effect of ‘triggering’ language will likely be met with cries of “political correctness gone mad!”, but the fact is, we don’t realise how much this language seeps into everyday life. A study looking at the use of such language in secondary school-age children found that almost half of the words they used to describe people with a mental health condition were classified as ‘popular derogatory terms’. The impact of these negative affective words should not be understated; around 10% of young people are affected by mental illness and these words create a self-perpetuating cycle of stigma for already marginalised individuals.
Not only are behaviours associated with mental illness colloquailised, but the disorders themselves have become trivialised in everyday conversation. Obsessive compulsive disorder is just that – a disorder. It’s something you have, not something you are. Often, people use this label to describe their neat and orderly personality – they are not saying they are mentally ill. Reducing the complexities of mental illness in this way trivialises this not uncommon experience, and spreads misinformation. Words like ‘schizo’ or ‘psycho’, which have obvious negative connotations, cause negative judgements about the disorder they are associated with, and the legitimate experiences of thousands of people. Clinical labels are of great importance – they help people to understand their illness and take the blame away from the individual – but words change meaning through their usage, and these labels are no longer just descriptive, they are derogatory.
The misuse of medical terminology may be, in part, to blame for the over-medicalisation of human experience. Throughout Trump’s presidential campaign, the torrent of abuse he received included attacks about his mental state, and critics have even suggested he be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It is not only unhelpful and unfeasible to diagnose an individual through the TV screen, using it as an attack against someone’s character is hugely offensive and stigmatising for many. Trump’s bigotry, inflated ego and hateful rhetoric shouldn’t be used as proof of mental illness and the implication that it can, further perpetuates negative judgment cast upon sufferers.
But what if this language is used without any reference to, or suggestion of, mental illness? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what your intentions are for using this language, there are so many alternatives – use them.