Mental Health Language & Labels – Does it Matter?

Mental health labels

Mental health labels

You can’t say anything these days without offending somebody can you? Someone, somewhere, will take issue with every little thing you say. You just can’t keep up with what’s acceptable any more.

Does it matter if we get it wrong sometimes? Should we care if people get offended by what we say in a society that places such high esteem on free speech?

Let me ask you this: do our words matter?

Of course they do. And if they don’t, I’ve wasted an awful lot of my time writing this last few years.

Words are powerful. I’d go so far as to say they are the most powerful things we have. They can be a force for good, and they can be our most deadly weapon.

Sticks and stones…

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.’

It’s bollocks isn’t it? Bones heal, but many of us still carry the wounds of words visited upon us with the intent to cause hurt.

Words stick with us. They shape us. They inspire us. They can lift us up, and they can tear us down.

They define us.

The culture we live in, the prevailing social attitudes – they start with our words.

Words matter.

And if we are to ever eradicate mental health stigma, prejudice and discrimination, we must look at the labels and language that we use, and we must consider the impact that our words have, at both an individual and a wider social level.

Pexels Labels

Earlier this year I met with a major national newspaper to discuss this topic, following the use of the term ‘happy pills’ to open a prominent feature on the rates of anti-depressant prescription by GPs. The terminology led to a number of complaints.

Why the fuss?

So, why the fuss?

Because it trivialises and cheapens something that to many of us is no trivial matter. Anti-depressant medication can be a life-saver, but for many, taking them can be a terrifying prospect. Will they change us? Will they make us feel suicidal? Will we become dependant on them? Will we experience difficult side-effects?

It is a serious treatment for what can be a very serious illness. I have only recently stopped taking anti-depressant medication after five years. But I have never ‘popped a happy pill’. The label is so very far removed from the reality, and it can feel pretty insulting to have that reality reduced to such a throwaway soundbite.

(And pills don’t make you happy, but that’s another discussion).

I have taken part in a number of campaigns for Time to Change, whose purpose is to end mental health stigma and discrimination, because too many people feel ashamed and isolated because of a mental health problem.

Time to Change end stigma

I’ve been there, and I know just how pervasive, how deep-rooted, such stigma can be. I felt it when I was scared to go to the doctor because of fear of what being labelled would mean for me and my future. I told myself I was weak, and selfish, and wasn’t a man because of what I was going through. I was asked what my colleagues should be told if any of them asked why I was off work. I have told someone how badly I was struggling only to see them look the other way and try and change the subject. I told myself I had to beat my illness myself and not ‘give in’ to depression.

Words matter

Whether we realise it or not, in a country where 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental health problem every single year, our words matter. In a country where 42% of men aged 18-45 have considered suicide, and 41% of them felt they couldn’t talk openly about their feelings, our words matter. They are a matter of life and death.

So, no pressure to get them right then!

Sometimes it is obvious that something is just plain wrong and offensive. The ‘mental patient’ label for a Halloween costume springs to mind.

But sometimes, people say the ‘wrong’ thing purely because the terminology is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realise that it may be considered wrong. In such cases we need to help people to understand the reason for better, more accurate terminology.

Take the term, ‘committed suicide’. The term is based on the historical categorisation of suicide as a criminal act. The verb ‘commit’ is generally reserved for acts considered to be immoral or criminal – adultery, rape, murder. Understandably, those of us that have found ourselves staring into that abyss can take issue with this terminology. More and more, suicides are being reported as a person deciding to ‘take their own life’ or ‘end their life’

Stop the stigma

To make things a little more complex, even people with lived experience of mental health problems themselves can disagree about what they feel is appropriate and acceptable terminology.

Some people don’t like their mental health issues referred to as a mental illness. I take a different view – I describe my periods of depression as times when I was mentally ill, as I want more people to understand that depression is an illness, and not a character flaw or weakness.

Others don’t like to use the term ‘suffering with…’ as a prefix to their mental health problem. Again, personally I disagree. When I am speaking I say that I ‘suffered with depression’. Because I did suffer, I suffered horrendously and I don’t sugarcoat that because I want people to know just how vicious, how debilitating depression can be.

Can we say right for saying wrong?

So where does that leave us? Can we say right for saying wrong? Are we at risk of shutting down the conversation around mental health because people are scared of saying the wrong thing? Will people be scared of speaking to a friend or family member that they may be concerned about, because they fear saying the wrong thing and making matters worse?

For me, what matters most is that someone cares. That someone wants to help and wants to try and understand. What we say matters, but so does the context in which we say it. However someone expresses themselves, it is hard to say the ‘wrong’ thing when coming from a place of care, empathy and compassion.

We all have mental health, and maybe we can all be a little more mindful of the language that we use and the labels that we apply. We won’t always get it right all the time, but we can all do better.

And if we do, we will change the world for the better, for millions of us.

Robin Williams words quote

Click here for my vlog on challenging mental health stigma

Matthew’s debut book, Something Changed: Stumbling Through Divorce, Dating & Depression, is available now Click here for info

Soundtrack:
Ladies & Gentleman, We Are Floating In Space – Spiritualized

Leave a Reply