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Wording Mental Health

Barney, manager of podcasts and consumer of sandwiches across Britain, puts down the headphones and picks up the pen (keyboard?) to discuss how the words we use around mental health can have a big impact.

There has been a wonderful push in contemporary society to see and respect mental illnesses as the powerful, damaging forces they are. Simultaneously, however, we are supposed to avoid presenting mental illness as being in control of someone, avoiding suggesting that it defines them. Where this places us with language can be tricky: even if you have your finger on the pulse of what is and isn’t acceptable to say, faux pas are easily stumbled into. We all know that terms such as ‘fr**k’ or ‘ins**e’ are incorrect to use, but wider words we use around mental illness are important too. While this author believes the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ is annoying, and that anyone who has used it has clearly never seen Kill Bill, the way we speak to each other can have a huge effect on someone’s emotional state for the day- especially if they suffer from mental illness.

Stop Just Saying Things and Give Me Examples

Alright, there's no need to be aggressive. The clearest example of this is the classic accidental reduction of someone to their illnesses- saying a person simply ‘is’ bi-polar. Grammatically, you aren’t wrong. Bi-polar is an adjective, so on one level it isn’t unlike saying someone is tall or hungry. However, it’s more subconsciously taken in as the noun form, where you’re saying they literally ‘are’ their illness and nothing else. It also leaves the door open to a ‘hi (insert mental illness), I’m dad!’ joke, which I once heard someone make at a party, and I've never seen a mood killer like it.

"The way we speak to each other can have a huge effect on someone’s emotional state for the day- especially if they suffer from mental illness."

The other thing to avoid is the excessive use of negative verbs. While I said at the top of this that you have to respect mental illnesses’ power, it’s still important to not wear someone down by making them feel tiny. Saying they ‘suffer’ from anxiety is alright, but I don’t need you to say I’m ‘riddled’, or ‘consumed by’ it. People get absolutely Shakespearean about this kind of stuff, but the truth is that people are simply unable to know how each other are feeling, so it’s best to leave the creative verb choices to them. Some days, I feel fine. Maybe I just ‘have’ anxiety, or I’m ‘afflicted’ with it, but certainly not ‘pinned down under’ it, which someone described me as once.

Alright, So Are All Words Bad?

No no, that's not what I'm getting at at all. I'm just saying that in my own experience, which is in no way representative of the whole, I’ve found the different verbs people ascribe to me and my mental illness have been upsetting or judgmental at points. This is especially the case when people are talking to a third party about me and my mental health. On the other hand, creative language can be a real help with mental health- both as a way for those who are suffering to express their feelings in a ‘rage on the page’ kind of way, but also because the ways people feel are often topsy turvy, and so they require language that is similarly versatile to describe that.

"the ways people feel are often topsy turvy, and so they require language that is similarly versatile to describe that"

Some days, the more negative terminology is correct- recently, I was sitting in the tube. People say on the tube normally, but that I felt swallowed up by that metal snake that runs under London, like it had taken me in whole and wouldn’t let me go. The air felt heavy, and the screeches felt louder than normal. I could really feel the absolutely insane amount of tax I paid fluttering out my pocket to fund this entirely unenjoyable experience. So yeah, I was in the tube, not on it, and that day I was ‘suffering’ from depression- my mental state was making it harder for me to be rational about normal things and achieve tasks I usually had no trouble with, such as commuting. A lot of days though, I feel totally normal and go about my life in a completely regular way. At these points, while I might still ‘have’ anxiety, it’s more like it’s sitting on the shelf at home for another day or didn’t get off the tube in time and is stuck on the line all the way to Heathrow.

Okay, I Think I Get It

The conclusion with this piece on mental health awareness, as with most pieces on mental health awareness, is to be aware. The current climate is very difficult, and the world is often a very stressful place. The words you use to describe someone's mental health can have a real impact on their day and the way they feel both about their tasks for that day and themselves. Where you can, try to use more neutral terms, like ‘have’. Let the person decide for themselves if they’re ‘suffering’ or not, because only they can know.

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