Watch your words -Destigmatizing mental health concerns through language

Watch your words -Destigmatizing mental health concerns through language

The biggest problem with mental illness apart from the illness itself is the stigma that our world has attached to it and we have helped perpetuate. It is a problem because when any illness is stigmatised, it discourages affected people to reach out for treatment or even speak about it.

How do we stigmatize mental illness?

When we tell people about our physical illness, they shower us with “Get well soon” and more wishes of a speedy recovery. So none of us ever feel ashamed to admit when we have the flu or fever or when we get diagnosed with chronic illnesses like hypertension or diabetes. On the other hand, if we tell people about our mental illness, we are thrown daggers and often with highly raised brows and slightly hushed voices we hear, “Are you sure?” or “That’s a pity.” Even our own family members ask us to be quiet about our referred visit to the psychologist or psychiatrist. 

While sometimes we are too open about our mental health issues. We are so open that we nonchalantly self-diagnose ourselves with depression, anxiety, OCD or ADHD and show off our vocabulary as we deign to feign mental illness. We use these real diagnoses to talk about our emotions or some slightly eccentric habits. Our well-wishers and some pseudo-intelligent know-alls will then shower us with unsolicited advice and they highly recommend the “shake it off” remedy. 

Both of these are the two sides of the mental illness conversation coin. On the one hand people are aware of the mental illnesses (the terminologies) and speak casually about their non-existent mental illness and on the other hand people hush and shush and do not wish to speak about it at all. While the first approach downplays the intensity and severity and adds stigma to the real existing mental illness symptoms; the latter strengthens and solidifies stigma by hiding the symptoms. Both ways we are doing more harm to the people who are diagnosed with mental illness or in need of psychiatric care. We must therefore start by changing the language we use to talk about mental illnesses.

How do we talk about mental illness?

  1. People-first language: We have to understand that people are not their diseases, and diseases should never define people. Therefore we must stop using words like “autistic”, “schizophrenic”, “addict” and use words that put people first not their diagnoses. We can describe them by using  phrases like “a person with a mental health issue” or “a person living with schizophrenia”, “a person with alcohol use disorder” or “individual experiencing depression” or the person has autism / schizophrenia / substance use disorder, etc. It may sound a mouthful but that cannot be an excuse to use stigmatizing language.
  2. Mental illnesses as real medical conditions: When we have a headache, we do not self-diagnose ourselves with brain tumor. However, we are very quick at claiming to have mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorder, psychotic disorders when we are speaking about our emotions. Just like our headaches cannot level to the severity of brain-tumor, our passing feelings of sadness cannot level to depressive disorders. So, we must be wary while using these medical terminologies. Mental illnesses are real medical conditions and unless you are medically certified to diagnose such symptoms, maybe holding your tongue would definitely help.
  3. Linguistic sensitivity: There are some terms we use jokingly or lightheartedly and at times we use them without knowing the exact definitions of these words. So, we recommend thinking before speaking and also be in the know of things you speak. Many words and phrases have become outdated and archaic so we must update ourselves continuously.  For example: from 2013 “Intellectual Disability” is replacing “Mental Retardation” in official literature. “ Similarly there are recommendations to use “died by suicide” of “committed suicide”; drug use instead of drug abuse, mental health issues instead of mental problems, etc. Further, if you wish to be vocal about mental health issues, refer to manuals like DSM-5 or ICD-10 to increase your mental health vocabulary and have a better understanding of the symptoms too.

We may not be able to contribute much to the ongoing research on mental health issues and treatments. But this should not stop us from making a positive contribution to destigmatize mental illnesses. Mental illnesses and their effects are not in our control but our language is. Each one of us can contribute to ending the stigma attached to mental health issues just by being conscious of the language we use and by being aware of the impact of our words in perpetuating the stigmas.

Let us watch our words, let us be mindful of the language we use, and let us strive to create a safe space for people to speak about their mental health issues, without fear of stigma.

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