Mental illness and the weight of words

Learning how to identify, process, express emotions and coping with them as they arise in everyday life is a critical part of the development of the human mind and emotional consciousness. It can be considered as part of personal growth, it lasts a lifetime and without it our self-awareness and our ability to fully experience our lives could be restricted.

However, emotional processing can become a very conflictual path, since it is subject to society’s pressure of pushing away negative emotions and showing only positive ones.

Nevertheless, in a time when a small amount of textual characters is considered to be enough to express how someone is feeling in a precise moment, undermining emotions down to this scale should come as no surprise.

In this confusing pattern, a more serious issue significantly complicates the picture: mistaking temporary and transitional emotions with mental disorders – and vice versa. The extent to which this problem has been spreading is not limited to the circumstance of introducing certain verbal expressions in the daily usage (many names of mental disorders have, indeed, started to be used in the common language, leading to a vague or improper way of mentioning them), but it even reaches the point of a real difficulty in recognising the presence of a mental disorder condition itself.

In this scenario, pondering what words and expressions to use –as well as how to use them- plays a big role. There is a big difference between feeling sad and being depressed. Being worried about an upcoming test is not the same thing as having an anxiety disorder. Having mood swings does not necessarily mean having a bipolar disorder. Learning how to distinguish them would mean being more conscious and aware not only about which are the feelings we are experiencing, but also –and, in these cases, more importantly- about how people in these situations may really feel.

Going through periods of feeling stressed, worried, angry, sad, anxious, or experiencing ups and downs and difficult life circumstances, should be viewed as “regular” life situations, and being able to productively cope with them is what is usually defined as a “mental health” condition: it involves emotional, psychological and social well-being, an overall balance and adaptability to external conditions and internal conflicts.

Mental illness, conversely, occurs when these feelings become strong and severe enough to compromise a person’s ability to perform daily tasks, from the simplest ones to the toughest ones, and interfere with human relations and social/work responsibilities.

More specifically, mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health disorders: depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders and addictive behaviours are only a small part of the list. The variety of mental disorders (as well as their causes, symptoms, effects, treatments and cures) reflects the individuality of human beings and clearly shows that a generalisation would be reductive, inappropriate and superficial.

But what these disorders have in common, besides the massive impact that they have on life and behaviour, is how the use of language matters in the awareness process and how it can potentially be unhelpful and harmful from the perspective of people with mental disorders.

Certainly, mental health is not the only context where some words can easily (often unconsciously and without any bad intention, too) become discriminatory lexicon, but the number of instances in which words referred to mental health problems are used in common language has been increasing lately.

If used appropriately and constructively, language can have an impressive impact on people who live with a mental disorder and, alongside the specific cures and treatments, it can bring connection among people through empathy. But, in the opposite case, superficial and discriminatory use of language may lead to devastating consequences and it could even reset any possible step forward that the person in question has made. Negatively using mental illness lexicon leads to stigmatization, misconceptions, stereotypes and labels: it generates distance between who is involved and the rest of society and it creates barriers that are difficult to overcome.

In particular, social stigma, namely the social attitude of attributing a negative connotation to a member of a community to downgrade it to a lower level, is one of the main obstacles in the mental health field. Some ways of talking about mental disorders may have as consequence the alienation of people experiencing them, contributing even more to stigmatization and discrimination. For example, the distinction between saying “He is a paranoid schizophrenic” and saying “He has paranoid schizophrenia disorder” might seem only slight. However, while in the first case the person is classified and named under the mental disorder, in the second case the mental disorder is just an aspect of the person’s life and personality, and this is the best way to demonstrate respect and emphasize dignity.

Our language and the words we choose to say (or not to say) always act like lenses through which we decide to see the world and through which we want others to see our world, too.

The brain constantly produces responses to external stimulus, elaborating what we hear or see through the “associative activation” process, according to which an initial stimulus (in this case, a word) is associated to an idea, which in turn activates many other ideas and thoughts.

The meanings we attach to the words we use influence our attitudes and beliefs towards a situation, in this case towards how we see and what we think about people living with mental disorders conditions.

This is the reason why, when talking about mental illness, which many studies have referred to as Europe’s largest health challenge of the twenty-first century, the fight against stigmatization must be considered as one the primary goals.

Likewise, countries also need to have more transparency in the mental health sector and an adequate assistance system. In Italy, for example, the increase in admissions to hospital psychiatric facilities in the past few years has not corresponded to an equivalent increase of personnel; instead, there has been a reduction of professionals in this sector.

International health associations and organisations are working hard to find ways to shed new light on these topics. Only a few weeks ago, during the second week of October, the Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) took place, organising campaigns and events aiming to promote the education and the awareness about mental health topics. Moreover, World Mental Health Day occurs every year, on the 10th of October, focusing on a specific mental disorder (this year it delved into suicide prevention) and the World Health Organisation continuously works to improve mental health of individuals and society in general through promotion of mental well-being, prevention of mental disorders, protection of human rights. However, to ensure that these big efforts are really effective, it is essential dwelling a little bit more on the way we communicate.

Maybe one of the reasons why this vocabulary is spreading out in the common daily lexicon could be the actual increase of mental disorders in world’s population, but this does not justify its improper use that may cause even bigger isolation of people in question.

Mental health challenges are often invisible and silent. We never really know what is going on deep inside. And we should always remember that, in most cases, sentences such as “But you don’t look sad”, “You just need to relax a little bit” or “Things are not that bad” will not improve the situation, instead they will make it worse. Our language is emotionally charged and words are important. Let’s give them the right weight.

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