What's in a name?
This seems to be the zeitgeist question surrounding mental health - how do we talk about it? Do we talk about problems, conditions, illnesses or issues? Should we refer to specific conditions and diagnoses or concentrate on symptoms? As far as I can tell, there doesn't seem to be any kind of consensus.
I have seen a professor vehemently criticise the use of the phrase, 'mental health issues', a NHS worker insisting on describing depression as 'low mood' and a friend telling me how the term 'mental health illness' makes her feel stigmatised. I have read many articles on the topic and more recently, became involved in a heated dinner discussion about whether it is all, in the words of another guest, 'political correctness gone mad' - that phrase in itself telling.
While I don't think that there is anything wrong in discussing language and how we use it- certainly some terms are unacceptable and offensive- I do worry that we might be missing a step. In-depth discussion of the language that we use to talk about mental health makes an assumption. It assumes that people are talking about mental health and need a more refined vocabulary to accurately explore it.
Sadly, I think that the problem is that a lot of people just don't talk about mental health. I am kept awake at night by how many young people have told us that before ThinkWell, they had never spoken about mental health. I think that before we examine the terms we use - we just need to get people talking about their feelings. I worry that quarrels about semantics may actually prevent people from expressing themselves.
Our 'We are all human' blog shows that there is no single way of talking about mental health - it is by its very nature, personal and subjective. In ThinkWell, we don't have explicit rules about language- we just get young people talking - we help them find a voice and discuss whatever comes up. The last thing we need in mental health is more fear.
We find that the most rewarding and revealing conversations arise when we ask young people about their language and how they think others may feel. This encourages empathy and exploration of their own culture e.g. why do we use 'mental' in everyday phrases?
Based on what I have learnt so far, I think that there are 3 simple things that we can all do around mental health and language.
1. Ask people how they like to talk about what's going on for them. There is such variation but asking shows that you care.
2. On an organisation level- talk to your service users. What do they want? How do they want to talk about mental health? At the moment, our youth ambassadors are surveying their friends and peers to give us an idea of what language will stimulate the best discussions.
3. Try to talk and share in whatever way you can- before we find a language- let's start with some words.