Despite recent societal attempts to normalize mental health issues and prop up the practically non-existent mental health care system in America, mental health remains a profound problem. The language used around mental health discourse significantly contributes to this crisis.
Discrimination of all types is reprehensible, including discrimination against those with mental health issues and disabilities. Harmful language targeted at these individuals only increases the stigmatization of mental health and normalizes the use of words such as “crazy,” “retard,” “mental” and “psycho.”
In his article “Why the language we use to describe mental health matters,” Dr. Antonis Kousoulis gives examples of overexaggeration: calling someone thin “anorexic,” using the phrase “I’m going to kill myself” in a sarcastic manner and saying “I’m so depressed” when feeling a little down. This use of language disregards the lived experiences and feelings of those seriously afflicted by mental illness. This includes not just those struggling, but their family and friends, too.
Such language can perpetuates the shame felt by individuals when struggling with their mental health, and it can dissuade them from getting the help they need. America’s system is built to aid people when a crisis hits, but it continuously fails to prevent such situations.
This semester, I’m taking WRTC 430, a course focused on writing as healing. The class stresses the importance of family, community and language when addressing trauma and mental health issues.
One of the books assigned in the class, called “Healing: Our Path From Mental Illness to Mental Health” by Dr. Thomas Insel, the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), explains that language used in the field and in mental health discourse can be challenging to navigate, but using correct vocabulary is essential when discussing mental health.
“Are we dealing with mental illness, mental health, mental health disorders, brain disorders, or behavioral disorders?” Insel writes. “Are these illnesses, disorders, or conditions? Is the field mental health or behavioral health? Are the people affected patients, clients, consumers, or survivors? Words matter.”
So, not only is the correct language necessary to prevent any form of discrimination, it’s also vital when diagnosing individuals, talking to patients and families and even when defining the name of the field and the disorders themselves.
The class has helped me develop my own trusting community within the classroom and has created a space in which mental health is not stigmatized. Students have a safe space to express themselves and work through their emotions and trauma via verbal discourse among classmates and, most importantly, through writing.
Language, community and trust are all important aspects of the path toward understanding and destigmatizing mental health issues and constructing a system in which mental health crises are prevented, not just treated on the spot or after the fact. Changing the rhetoric surrounding mental health discourse is vital to creating influential change. And while it’s just one piece of the incomprehensible puzzle that is the U.S. mental health care system, it’s a start.
Contact senior writing, rhetoric and technical communication major Emma Seli at email@example.com. For more editorials regarding the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the opinion desk on Instagram and Twitter @breeze_opinion