Talking about mental health

For World Mental Health Day Keith blogs about the importance of language when talking about mental ill health.

For World Mental Health Day, I wanted to write about the importance of language. Having had many depressive episodes over the years, I know only too well how words can and do impact on those with mental ill health.

First and foremost we need to dispel any myths that mental ill health is not a disability. All of the various conditions which can cause mental ill health are legally a disability, according to the Equality Act (2010) if they persist for more than 12 months and have a significant impact upon the person’s ability to do normal day to day tasks.

The language of the act is very much couched in the medical model of disability, focussing on the condition and what it prevents a person from doing. PCS uses the social model of disability, however, so we look at disability from the point of view of the barriers which are imposed upon a person with a particular condition. Removing those barriers can mean a person can be as productive as anyone else.

This should not, of course, be taken as diminishing the biological and/or genetic component(s) to many conditions causing mental ill health, but the barriers of society are ultimately what disable those with mental ill health.

Stigmatising phrases

I have used the term “mental ill health” as it is gaining popularity as a more appropriate and less stigmatising phrase than a “mental health condition/problem”. Phrases using the words “mental health” are often used to describe someone who is ill, but we do not use that for any other type of illness. We do not say someone with diabetes has a “pancreas health” condition, for example.

“Mental health” is surely, therefore, the state of mental wellbeing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines “Mental health” as "... a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community."

It is perhaps no surprise given the history of mental health that many unacceptable terms have been used over the years; it is only relatively recently that those with mental ill health have not been locked away out of sight in asylums.

Language can isolate

Everyday language still used can isolate those with mental ill health and also prevent them from seeking help. Referring to someone who is a bit silly as “mental” or someone who is very tidy as “OCD” perpetuates the myths and stereotypes of mental ill health.

The media and wider society unfortunately still play to these myths, with Brexit being described by some tabloids as a “collective mental breakdown” and last year at Halloween I saw a “mental patient” costume, for kids, for sale.

Mental ill health is regarded by the WHO as one of the fastest growing life threatening conditions. The term “committed suicide” is still in common usage but the word “commit” comes from when it was illegal. You commit a crime, not suicide.

Completing suicide or ending/taking his/her/their own life are now regarded as better terms for this. Those who attempt suicide, but survive, are sometimes said to have been “unsuccessful” – as if we wanted them to succeed.

Language is important in preventing stigma and isolation but also in promoting awareness and encouraging those who are not well to seek help. Please do think about your terminology. Words matter and can resonate far more than you expect, often in a negative, hurtful and shaming way.

Share PCS:

Visit PCS social sites: