Changing the way we talk about mental health & mental illness

Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - 10:17pm

At the recent Mental Health Collaborative Care Conference, Ruth Bruer, employee at Connections Halifax, was chatting with a physician from the Dalhousie Faculty of Medicine about our societal use of language around mental illness, and how this contributes to stigma.

Ruth shared with the physician an editorial on the topic of mental illness, language and stigma that had been featured in a May 2005 issue of Capital Health Update. The physician asked if she could share it with medical students. We were thrilled to accommodate this request, and when Ruth suggested re-running that article in Capital Health This Week, we agreed it was a topic well worth highlighting again.

Here’s the editorial by Margaret Angus, which appeared on May 27, 2005:

“Crazy. Loony. Nuts. A few bricks short of a load. Those are the types of words people use to describe those who are living with a mental illness,” says Kathleen, member at Connections Clubhouse. Her words make me think about the impact that language has on feelings, attitudes and actions. Is changing our language a necessary first step in changing the way we think about mental health?

I went out for dinner this weekend with friends and in the course of conversation about the week’s events, the use of two adjectives jumped out at me – “loony” and “nuts.” These words have become so ingrained in our language that we use them without thinking. Is this wrong?

We certainly don’t want to censor communication, so maybe it’s okay to use these words to describe events, as long as we’re not labeling people. Or perhaps the pervasiveness of such words is a symptom of a way of thinking. Historically, words such as lunatic and crazy have sent a powerful message, suggesting that mental illness is a weakness, a character flaw and a reason to be ashamed.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, eight per cent of Canadians suffer from major depression at some point in their lives, while anxiety disorders affect 12 per cent of the population. These are only the reported cases, and don’t touch on the many other mental illnesses.

Why do so many cases go unreported? Imagine feeling physically ill and fearing that this illness could threaten your quality of life. You’d likely seek medical help, and early intervention might well return you to full health. Imagine feeling mentally ill, fearing that this illness could threaten your quality of life, yet being afraid to ask for help, terrified of being labelled as “nuts,” “crazy” or “insane.” Imagine feeling that ill health was more tolerable than seeking treatment.
Will changing our language change the way people think about mental health? I’m not sure. But I do believe that we have a responsibility, as an organization devoted to healthy people, healthy communities, and as a larger society, to break down some of the walls surrounding mental illness. Changing our language may be a place to start. 

Feedback from a reader:
“I just read your article on changing the way we talk - LOVED it! I've been thinking about my own language with the use of those words, particularly with my child and my partner's child. I've been thinking about it ever since the Community Health Board I work with sat down with some folks at the Connections Clubhouse where we heard about that issue - the stigma of mental illness. One person said, ‘we need to make mental illness the same as a broken leg.’

“We do tend to use those words to describe unwanted, unbearable situations...but by doing so do we equate those attributes to those with mental illnesses? I, for one, will start changing how I use that language. I'm not saying it'll be easy or that I won't slip, but I'll try to do what I can, because I can.”