It’s a funny thing language: it is constantly changing and evolving and in so many ways, it not only reflects, but also helps to shape the society within which we live. Words that were deemed socially acceptable and were commonplace 60 years ago, now leave an uncomfortable and bitter taste in the mouth when spoken aloud today. As a teacher, I have, over the years, invested considerable time discussing with young people why certain words or terms are not appropriate. In many respects we have come a long way. We are more culturally aware, for example, that to use a term linked to physical disability, race or sexuality as an insult might be deemed offensive. In other ways, however, particularly in relation to mental health and its surrounding metalanguage, we have a long way to go.
Progress has been made. I rarely go more than a few weeks without seeing some kind of reference to ‘mental health awareness’ or ‘breaking down stigmas’ in my social-media feed. Depression and anxiety in particular, it seems, are becoming less taboo (at least in my own circle) and the overarching sentiment surrounding this appears to be quite rightly “about time too”. I can’t help but wonder though, whether these illnesses are quickly becoming the “socially acceptable” face of mental illness, leaving more serious conditions lurking silent and unspeakable in the shadows, stigma and all.
Unlike other derogatory terms, for example, the word “psycho” it seems, has not yet reached the realm of the unacceptable in our daily language use. “Political correctness gone mad”, some will shout. But it’s so much more than that. I hear this word spoken in classrooms, corridors and playgrounds all of the time, but hardly ever with any kind of awareness that this could be wrong or offensive in any way. Perhaps more worrying though, is that this is a word that I have also so often heard flung around without a second thought by well-meaning adults. It’s just a word, of course. A word used in jest, perhaps? A lighthearted comment, with no ill-feeling? And in some ways it IS just a word. But it is also a prefix to a whole host of other words: psychosis being one of them. It is these more serious mental-illnesses, where the stigma is most rife and this is where there is the most work to be done.
When, I wonder, will this term be treated with the same contempt as derogatory terms based upon physical disability? The media naturally have a massive role to play: so often representing those with mental illnesses as ‘dangerous’ in some way; readily reporting on and sensationalising violence, for example, but failing to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of sufferers are more likely to harm themselves than others.
Perhaps as parents (and teachers) it is our job to become aware of the stigma embodied in the words that we use, and to make an effort not only to change our own language, but to challenge the language of the young people we hold influence over. This, I think, is the first in a long line of steps to truly “breaking the stigma”.
I have witnessed someone I love very, very dearly ride the roller-coaster that is severe mental illness. I have witnessed their life and whole person turn inside-out and upside-down, but they came out of the other side, triumphant and I couldn’t be prouder of their strength of character, determination and resilience. To give said illness a label would, I think, be pointless, irrelevant and possibly even damaging. But perhaps we CAN start to re-label those who have been through similar experiences with our own words. Not as strange, or undesirable or frightening like the media all too often would suggest, but as fighters and survivors: resilient, strong and powerful. More so than I could ever be.