(CW: This post mentions suicide)
I just read an article that described one of singer Guy Sebastian’s friends as having:
‘lost his life to his battle with mental health’
Tragic. Another young man has become a statistic that should be at least partially preventable. Sadly, we can’t bring him back.
But there is something we can do to inch our way towards better describing why this happens. We can use accurate language when we write and talk about these tragedies. Language that doesn’t mislead. On the surface it may not look like there’s much wrong with the above quote.
So, why do I feel exasperated about it?
When someone dies by suicide, they often have lost a very tough battle. But that battle is not with mental health. That battle is with mental illness.
There’s a tendency in the media to use the terms ‘mental health’ or ‘mental health issue’ interchangeably with the words ‘mental illness’. I don’t know if it’s due to political correctness or even self-stigma. But it feels as though it is being done to play down something that needs to be taken much more seriously.
This fuzzy language also extends beyond the media. I recently took part in several surveys (aimed at people with lived experience of mental illness) around the best nomenclature to describe mental ill health. And the wording of these surveys implied that some (if not all) of us have a problem with the term ‘mental illness’ to describe our collection of debilitating symptoms.
I don’t. Here’s why:
My Bipolar 1 Disorder is a biologically based illness. I had no episodes of mental ill health before its sudden onset at the age of thirty-two. One week I was part of the neurotypical mentally healthy population. The next week, sleep deprivation and a deluge of changing hormone levels from having just given birth flicked a genetic switch and I suffered my first psychotic episode followed five weeks later by catatonic depression. I needed a lot of medical psychiatric treatments to eventually get me better, including medications, electroconvulsive therapy, and months in hospital.
When I am flattened by episodes of this chronic, intermittent, potentially fatal illness (usually every two to three years), I am so debilitated, that to call it a ‘mental health issue’ would minimise my very real symptoms. To describe my experience using the word ‘illness’ feels 100% right.
When words like ‘issue’ are used to skirt around mental illness it implies these aren’t ‘real illnesses’. An ‘issue’ sounds like something that could be resolved with a conversation. Synonyms for the word ‘issue’ include problem, situation, and muddle.
I don’t have a ‘problem’. Because that implies I could have caused it.
I don’t have a ‘situation’. Because that suggests I’m embroiled in a conflict.
And I sure as hell don’t have a ‘muddle’.
I have an illness.
Beyond my experience, I don’t believe the term ‘mental health issue’ is helpful regardless of the type or severity of the condition it attempts to describe. It also has a negative impact on bigger picture mental health advocacy. If we insist on blurring the lines by using ‘issue’ instead of ‘illness’ it doesn’t leave us as much room to push back when mental illnesses are not taken seriously.
Mental illnesses generally don’t show up on an X-ray or a blood test. We know that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But it does make them harder to understand for those who don’t live with them. So, let us at least give these debilitating conditions the benefit of an accurate descriptor. Because if we can’t use the right vocabulary to name what is going on with us, we can’t expect others to even begin to understand it.
The insidious nature of self-stigma can mean the requests to soften the language can come from those of us living with mental illness. Among other things self-stigma can make you believe the word ‘illness’ will stain your life. I am not immune to self-stigma. But I work at recognising when it appears in my thinking. And I work at building my sense of self outside this illness, because that allows me to view it objectively. That work is my responsibility.
However, the discomfort the words ‘mental illness’ evokes in other people is not my responsibility. I don’t see why those of us who have a mental illness and have done the work to live with that reality should tolerate inaccurate language that minimises our experience, just to make others who are not in that position feel more comfortable.
To return for a moment to Guy Sebastian’s friend who was described as losing his life to his battle with mental health:
If something ends in death, (or requires medical treatment) then it has been caused by an illness, an accident, or a crime. It has not been caused by an ‘issue’, and it certainly has not been caused by ‘mental health.’
Lifeline: 13 11 14
The article I refer to in this post can be found here:
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