Can 'clunky language' be good for mental health?

Thursday, 12 June 2014 Ruth Richards

Ruth Richards, Head of Communications at Mind, responds to a recent article by Nick Cohen in the Spectator.

Nick Cohen’s blog on The Spectator site this week makes the case that by ‘policing’ the language around mental health and mental illness, mental health charities and activists actually do our cause a disservice.  He takes the view that by avoiding terms such as “mentally ill” and “sufferers” we put too much faith in the potential to change opinion through language and end up not communicating the full impact of mental health problems on those we're trying to support.

And there you go, I’ve already used the phrase “mental health problems”. Cohen is right – it is a clunky phrase. No one knows that more than me and my team. But I can’t help thinking that, as well written and argued as this blog is, it kind of misses the point.

Being careful about the language we use isn’t about being a “snuffling pointy nosed witch-finder” (although that is possibly the best insult I’ve ever read), it’s about speaking to and on behalf of the people we support. We’ve asked our supporters and members, and you told us you didn’t see yourselves as victims. You told us you wanted to be empowered to take control of your own lives and to fight for the support you need. So we reflect that.

"I truly believe we’re at a tipping point in attitudes towards mental health, and that language plays a role in that."

The language we use isn’t about creating a false impression of ‘equality’. We certainly don’t shy away from talking about the fact that people with mental health problems (there I go again) face prejudice and discrimination. But we’d like to think that by recognising and representing you as individuals who are capable of making decisions about your own life we’re doing something to chip away at that inequality. No one is defined by an illness, no matter how severe it is, and that’s at the heart of everything Mind stands for.

Of course there’s a line to tread for charities between making the case for people needing support and painting them as ‘victims’. It’s a line we tread every day, and have heated debates about in the office quite regularly. This is good and healthy, and I think generally we do pretty well. At Mind we like to let individuals do the talking and tell their own stories. I’ve always felt that if you can communicate the realities of living with, say, depression - the gut-wrenching, hollow bleakness – then you don’t need to portray someone as a helpless invalid to demonstrate that they need care and support.

Cohen says, rightly, that terms originally considered abusive, such as “queer”, have been reclaimed by groups and so they are no longer offensive. People with mental health problems (that’s three) do this, too. Many refer to themselves with a certain dark humour as “mental”, “loony” or “bonkers”. The point is, of course, that this is their prerogative and their reclaiming. It doesn’t mean it’s okay for everyone else. It’s why a certain “N word” is used by black people but is unacceptable from a BBC presenter.

Language is powerful. It can shape how we see the world. Shifts in language can drive and reflect a change in public attitudes. I think it’s fantastic that the media have (mostly) moved away from stigmatising language around mental health and that people I meet outside of work are, therefore, beginning to understand better that those with mental health problems (nearly the last time) aren’t either gibbering wrecks or unpredictable aggressors. I truly believe we’re at a tipping point in attitudes towards mental health, and that language plays a role in that.

I also don’t agree that in however many years’ time the terms we use today will become offensive in their own right. “Person with mental health problems” is just far too clunky to be shouted in the playground.  

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