Language and Mental Illness; A Different Point of View

I’ve been reading a lot of pleas and rants about how important it is for people to conform to one standard of language when it comes to discussing mental illness… this is not one of them.

Personally, I believe expecting everyone to adhere to strict conformity when it comes to discussing mental health is a step in the wrong direction, and while that is a notion that may boggle some minds, I’m hoping to make a clear case today for my (potentially less-popular) point of view. I am not here to call anyone out, just to express my concern and why I feel that way.

I’d like to start by stating the obvious:

People have different beliefs.

In fact, they’re allowed to. That is a big part of the idea that America was founded on, and globally it is even more apparent that our cultures and environments have produced many different ways of looking at the world. These many viewpoints include those that effect how people look at mental health.

If you haven’t already, you may want to take a second to check out The Icarus Project. This is a national community of people (largely artists) who don’t believe in taking traditional psychiatric medications (for the  most part) and instead try to embrace themselves in their current state, largely funneling their emotions into art.

Do you agree with this? Maybe not, but whether you or I agree with their beliefs doesn’t change their right to believe them.

A big part of our ability to live our lives comes from tolerance and the ability to get along with people with different viewpoints. It seems like such a large part when it comes to “battling stigma” has become pushing others to believe the things (and act the way) we want them to instead of focusing on being open and being treated with respect.

Language is Imperfect. 

I have gotten a lot of flack from my therapists for jumping back and forth between psychiatric verbiage when describing my mental state and regular descriptive language. What they don’t seem to understand is that most words don’t seem to describe what I’m aiming to describe very well at all, and I wind up with the oddest mish-mash (I’m sure you’ve read some here if you’re familiar at all with my blog) of language.

Language is imperfect, not all of the words we might want or need have been invented yet. Describing something that isn’t tangible (like something in our minds) can often be frustrating enough, and on top of that different groups of people have different feelings associated with different words. One word in English very rarely means one thing straight across the board (I guess maybe “buttress” is an exclusion?), and a word spoken in the city might have an entirely different connotation in the country (let alone from region to region).

Language is not something we can expect to lasso and subdue until it is uniform. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way language has ever worked (from the time it was invented) so it seems ludicrous to me to expect that it will now.

Language is a form of self-expression.

If we consider other forms of self-expression (music, painting, etc.) it seems ridiculous to walk up to someone painting and tell them they can’t use the color blue. Or they can’t use the “c” note. Or they can use the “c” note but only when followed with an “e flat”.

A lot of the things I’ve seen lately about mental health verbiage has sounded like that sort of bizarre notion me. While I understand that people feel concerned about how others are expressing themselves (something I will get into momentarily), the act of telling someone what they can and can’t say or write quickly falls into the realm of censorship. While I understand that is not anyone’s intention, that doesn’t change the fact that that’s where this attitude is heading.

In addition, self expression is as individual as… well… the individual! There is no such thing as a “right way” or a “wrong way” to express oneself. Surely, there are ways that may be more pleasing to the senses (which, again varies widely from person to person), or ways that our society deems more acceptable than others (also varies depending on many factors like age, location, race), but that normally doesn’t bar forms of self-expression that falls outside of these categories.

Do the actions or words of one person discredit the rest of the group?

This is the big question that I think has been fueling so many of these negative comments and posts. Certainly when one blogger appears sloppy or ignorant about mental health, we all suffer, right?

I read an article once about how a large group of lesbians (around the time the gay rights movement was really heating up) were shunning any woman who had identified herself as a lesbian but had slept with a man because they believed it made them all look bad. Instead of helping their own cause, it created tension and animosity among a group that should have been fighting along side one another for the same rights.

I feel like this is a very similar situation, and people who should be scooped up and cared for to bolster a strong mental health community are instead being ostracized and attacked (for often doing little more than using a word incorrectly).

This particular idea is one that has been weighing heavily on my heart for quite some time, not because of the language situation (that is really a secondary symptom for this issue) but because of how quick much of the mental health community is to jump on board with ostracizing or shunning anyone who has a mental illness and also committed an act of violence.

Does a seemingly “poorly written” blog post make us all look bad? (Really?)

To take it one step further I have to ask; does an act of violence from one person with mental illness make us all look bad?

If it does, it is not for the reasons you are probably thinking of. From my perspective it all comes down to the reaction of the mental health community, and whether our reaction is one of solidarity:

“This is an example of a very extreme instance of mental illness and is an important indicator about the help that is sill needed in the mental health community.”

or, more often, one of dismissal:

“People with mental illness are almost never violent. I am never violent, this has nothing to do with me.”

The issue of including (or being supportive) of someone in the mental health community who might need extra help is an issue ten times larger to me than being nit-picky about the language in a blog or on twitter. How can we expect people to be supportive and accepting of us when we can’t support or accept the people within our own mental health communities? Can we take a look at the bigger picture please?

This conversation has only just begun.

The conversation about mental health has only just began to heat up. I believe whole heartedly that putting our focus on the statements that don’t match up with our own beliefs and attacking them is incredibly foolish. At this point, I think it is less important what is being said as the fact that people are saying it.

Think about it, more people than ever before are beginning to talk about mental health, and that is truly remarkable! No matter what people are bringing to the table in this conversation, it is important to remember that people have different beliefs and the way we learn and understand is to have a conversation with many different points of view. We can’t expect people who are just starting to explore this topic to have the vocabulary or understanding that someone who has lived with these issues for many years to have, and attacking anyone for being ignorant or for having a different perspective will likely create an enemy instead of a friend.

Understanding wont happen overnight, and we can’t force people into seeing from our point of view. All we can do is share what we have, and be patient and tolerant with everyone else.

What can we do to help?

1. Express yourself! Express yourself with words, photography, paint, clothing, music, whatever it is that you do best. Use the language that suits you best to tell your story, the story of how you (an individual) live your life!

2. Practice patience. I know this can be a tough one (especially with a mood disorder), but if you see a comment or post that upsets/frustrates you, skip it. If you want to respond, maybe wait until the emotional reaction has gone and see how you feel then.

3. Practice positivity. The internet is one place in particular that I try to practice the phrase, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Try pledging yourself to leaving positive comments only and skipping writing negative ones. You’ll be amazed at how much this can help your own mood and feelings of positivity while blogging.

4. Focus on you. Try focusing on your own self expression and making it the best it can be instead of focusing on the perceived faults of others. When in conversation (online or in real life) and you feel you need to respond to a point of view you don’t agree with, start the dialogue by focusing on yourself. “I find this particular use of words offensive because ____. ” or “disagree because ____.” This leads to a more open conversation that feels more honest and less accusational.

5. Be open. In the mental health community, a lot of importance is placed on the portion of being open that involves sharing our stories, but it is equally as important to be open to what others have to say or questions they might have. Remember, this is a time for mental health conversation, and conversations are a two way street. It can be amazing how being open to a new idea or point of view can lead us to profound places; all it takes is a willingness to listen!

Anyone with works of self-expression coming from a mental health perspective who might be interested in seeing one pop up on this blog, shoot me an email at host@thebipolarcuriousblog.com

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7 responses to “Language and Mental Illness; A Different Point of View

  1. I’m extra-glad I read your post today.

    I came across a Facebook post from an bipolar research organization that I folllow. They posted something I found offensive. I realllly wanted to write a negative comment and honestly, I felt I had good reason to do so, but my comment would have most likely been taken as negative.

    Well, first off my Facebook was actually not working (!!!) & it was read-only – it wouldn’t allow me to “like” or comment on anything. I took that as a sign, but I still felt tempted to be snarky when I was able to comment once again.

    Then I read your post paying special attention to the section about practicing positivity on the internet. #That# convinced me to step away from the laptop when feeling the urge to go off, and go make the bed or whatever stuff I should really be doing instead of spending an inordinate amount of time on Facebook. 😉

    Anyway, this post of yours is extremely well-written, insightful and provides a comprehensive commentary, and you’re an awesome blogger. I admire you for helping others through your words in a myriad of ways!

    Have a great day — Dyane

  2. Well done! Thank you for saying some things that really needed to be said, and doing it so beautifully.

  3. Sarah, this is very well written and I agree with much of what you say. I do not concern myself with how others refer to their illness other than as a question in my interview that does not suggest either way is right or wrong. However, when friends and family are speaking about me personally, I ask that they use the terms “a person with bipolar disorder” or “she has bipolar disorder” as opposed to saying that I *am* bipolar since I feel like saying I *am* bipolar devalues my experience as a human being who just happens to have bipolar disorder. All of that said, I, like you, am very grateful that at least these conversations are beginning to happen. I love your suggestion of the use of *I* statements because I have found them to be helpful with all people in my life, not just those whose verbage I disagree with. Thank you so much for this post and please keep doing what you do!

  4. OMG, thank you for mentioning The Icarus Project, that’s an incredible community!

  5. Yeah see… I’m trilingual. Worked as a military linguist. And yet, I make up words all the time to express things, ’cause yes — language is fluid and changing and glorious. Having said that, I get really cross at folks not taking basic editing measures… but that’s the copyeditor in me, ha ha. I try to not be a haranguing asstroll about it though.

  6. Pingback: Trust, Poetry, Cravings, Language, and Gun Violence: Mental Health Monday | A Way With Words

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