The Language of Mental Health

The Language of Mental Health

Mental illness and mental health are topics that are, thankfully, getting a lot more airtime nowadays. Thanks to the power of social media, more young (and old) people than ever are discussing their experiences with mental health and mental illness, encouraging each other to seek help and support, and just generally trying to erase the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

However, the focus of these conversations is always very specific. We talk openly about specific mental illnesses (usually depression and anxiety, but also bipolar, anorexia, binge eating disorder, PTSD, and so on and so forth). Which is great – obviously. For years, people suffering from these very real and very specific illnesses have had to suffer in silence, lest they be subjugated to public ridicule, discrimination, and prejudice. Now, we’re slowly starting to break that silence, and we’re encouraging people to use their voices in a way they never have before.

But whilst talking about specific mental illnesses is great, what we don’t often talk about is the more general side of mental health. By this I mean we don’t talk about how we’re feeling mentally outside of the context of specific mental illnesses.

[bctt tweet=”We don’t talk enough about the general side of mental health” username=”oawoodward”]

Which is ludicrous, when you think about it. As I’m writing this post, I’m currently off work because I have a sore throat and a headache and chesty cough and a blocked nose. I don’t have a specific illness (okay, maybe I have a cold), but I’m just physically not well.

Similarly, when we complain of a headache, we’re not always saying we are suffering from a specific physical illness, of which one of the symptoms is a headache. We’re simply saying we have a headache and it’s making us feel like crap.

But we rarely have these conversations about their mental health. We say we’re fine, we’re tired, we’re stressed, we’re this, we’re that. But we never say ‘you know what? My brain has a cold today and I feel a bit foggy.’

Talking about mental health is so rooted in mental illness that we forget that everyone – even people who don’t suffer from diagnosable mental illnesses – has a mental health. And sometimes that health is great and fine and dandy, and sometimes that health is a bit under the weather.

And part of that is because of the stigma that still surrounds actual mental illnesses. We don’t want to admit to being in a bad place mentally lest we’re deemed ‘crazy’ or ‘unfit’ or ‘mental’ or ‘weak’.

[bctt tweet=”‘We don’t want to admit to being in a bad place mentally lest we’re deemed crazy'” username=”oawoodward”]

But it’s also because we don’t have the language to talk about mental health outside of specific illnesses. We get jumped on when we say we’re feeling depressed or anxious, because depression and anxiety are real and terrible mental illnesses. The problem is, we’ve not developed a language for talking about the general side of mental health. Sure, we can say ‘sad’ or ‘nervous’ – but those too are often rooted in specifics. If you say you’re feeling sad today, people want to know why. If you say you’re feeling nervous, people want to know why. Terms like depressed ad anxious often seem to have that ambiguous nature people are looking for when discussing how they’re feeling mentally.

Of course I’m not saying we should just co-opt the names of specific mental illnesses whenever we feel like it. Obviously not. We would never say ‘I’m feeling particularly cancer-y’ today, so we shouldn’t say we’re feeling depressed or anxious (or OCD or anorexic or bipolar) when we’re not actually suffering from those specific conditions. But we need to develop a language for mental health outside of specific illnesses.

In short, we need the mental equivalent of ‘I have a headache’. An equivalent that doesn’t rely on the specifics of mental illness, but one that conveys the ambiguity of mental health. Until we develop an effective language for talking about all aspects of mental health – from the specific to the general – people are going to continue to either suffer in silence, or offend every sufferer of depression and anxiety from here to eternity.

[bctt tweet=”The Language of Mental Health” username=”oawoodward”]

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