Understanding and Respecting Mental Health
As a society we are beginning to grasp the importance of understanding mental health. Lots of campaigns are encouraging people to open up and ask for help: Time to Change, Heads Together and Every Mind Matters to name a few. Even hospitality is getting involved with beer mats encouraging customers to ask ‘how are you doing really?’
So, while the taboo of mental health is (very) slowly disappearing, it’s time for the next challenge: acknowledging and discussing mental health respectfully. Personal and academic experiences have taught me how language can influence how individuals living with these differences feel about themselves. ‘Person-first language’ is the recommended way of discussing the topic more respectfully. It emphasises that we are all people, before our conditions or struggles, and maintains our fundamental equality. Here are a few things I have learnt!
We all have and experience mental health.
Firstly, describing mental health as an experience rather than an ‘illness’ (or disorder). According to Oxford Languages, illness is defined as ‘a disease or period of sickness affecting the body or mind’. Words like illness, disorder and sickness insinuate that there is something inherently wrong with those experiencing them – something that needs to be fixed or treated.
We are not our struggles.
Second, describing someone as ‘depressed’ instead of ‘having depression’. This is one of the simplest changes to make when talking about mental health. By saying someone ‘has bipolar disorder’ instead of ‘is bipolar’, you are separating the person from their struggle. You are telling them that their struggle does not define who they are as a person. In the same way that someone with a broken leg is never referred to as ‘broken’.
We all deserve to be understood.
It is easy to apply these changes to things you understand. Anxiety and depression are distant cousins of the rational panic or grief we all feel from time to time; more closely related by feelings of sadness and fear. So, even at their highest intensity, these experiences are much easier to try and comprehend than other examples like bipolar and schizophrenia.
Not to mention the publicity of these more common experiences is significantly higher than the rest. It may be difficult to understand how someone with schizophrenia can hear voices or see things that aren’t there. We need to start to expand the conversation of mental health further, including these lesser known difficulties. Removing the taboo in the process is a bonus! That’s the key. Ask people. Ask them twice. Listen to what they have to say but most of all be respectful.
We all deserve to be respected.
In the same way that a therapist will tell you to be kind to yourself, be kind to others. Self help books will tell you to turn negative thoughts of yourself into positive ones; turn ‘I failed’ into ‘I tried’. Apply the same changes when talking to others, no matter the conversation. That extra second of choosing the right words could mean the world to someone. Just trying to understand and respect them will mean even more. In times like these, it is more important than ever. We are living through unprecedented times, no one knows the right thing to do or say and there are no simple solutions. But by talking, understanding and respecting each other we can make the world an easier place to be.
We all need this more than ever.
A more comprehensive list of more respectful alternative phrases can be found at https://hogg.utexas.edu/news-resources/publications/language-matters-in-mental-health.
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