Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The words we use to describe mental illness - how they matter

We hear the words often - words that imply that a person is a disease and the disease is a person. For example, we may say that someone is a diabetic or a hypertensive. But that's not right. The diabetes and the hypertension (high blood pressure) don't define the person. The person lives with or has diabetes or hypertension. Do you see the difference?


This use of words is particularly important when it comes to mental health. Someone may say that a sibling or coworker is a schizophrenic or that someone committed suicide. The first is wrong for the same reason that saying someone is diabetic is wrong. But what is wrong with "committed suicide?" A lot really, because people commit crimes - and suicide isn't a crime. 

Someone I love killed himself. I don't say he committed suicide. I say he killed himself or he took his life. He didn't commit a crime and by implying it with the words, his death is stigmatized even more.

How we use words evolves over time and writers and journalists play a role in how this happens. If writers repeat hurtful or incorrect terminology or phrases, the readers begin to think that this is normal and what they should be using too. Because of this, I was glad to see that the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma partnered last year with CBC News (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), to put together a comprehensive guide on writing about mental health. Mindset - Reporting on Mental Health was compiled to help Canadian journalists navigate the waters of reporting on mental illness. The English version was launched last week, April 24, and is now available for download.

While it was written for Canadian journalists, there is no reason why English-speaking writers and journalists from around the world can't use the guide. It addresses issues about how not all mental illness can be put into one category, how the majority of people with mental illnesses don't commit crimes, interviewing techniques, and mental illness and the law - among other things.

It's an interesting read for students who will be working in social fields, such as psychology, teaching, policing, social work, law, and so many other professions. It's also interesting for the general public, because it gives some context to the issue of mental illness and how we talk about it. 

Think about it - how do you talk about mental illness? I know that I learned quite a bit from just browsing the document. 

1 comment:

Jasia Stuart said...

Interesting discussion! Mental illness is not the only time when we confuse the patient with the disease. I have diabetes and ( for better or worse) I sometimes say "I AM diabetic" as opposed to I have diabetes. It does change something, though I've never been able to pin down exactly what.

Words really can have an impact on how people perceive things; mental illness is already such a grey zone and we aren't good at talking about it to begin with. By (verbally)merging the individual with the illness we are also, I believe, assigning blame. I feel that this blaming of the individual is a more widespread problem; by assuming its the fault of the individual if they suffer from depression, obesity or addiction (to name just a few examples)we absolve society of the collective responsibility for the structures that are contributing to these illnesses. There are solutions that we are not going to find if we continue simply blame the individual for her illness.