Everyday Stigma: The Language of Mental Health

Writing this article is making me mad, I think I’m losing my mind. Really, is it? Am I genuinely losing my mind? Let’s be honest, it’s pretty unlikely. Nonetheless, neither of those phrases seem particularly out of place in this article, or even in everyday conversation. We’re all guilty of it; referring to mental health issues when discussing mundane, commonplace issues. But in doing so, are we just innocently using common turns of phrase, or are we in fact having a significant impact upon the way in which mental illness is perceived?

Let’s take for example, obsessive compulsive disorder. With roughly 750,000 sufferers in the UK, OCD is one of the most common, and well-known, mental disorders. Well-known perhaps, because it is referred to so often in every day conversation. We’ve all heard somebody say “I’m really OCD about cleaning” or we’ve perhaps even watched the odd episode of Channel 4’s Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners. In fact, the breakfast show Good Morning Britain recently aired a segment specifically about OCD, and the effects it can have on sufferer’s lives. During said segment, self-diagnosed ‘sufferer’ Michelle Mone was quick to state that she loved having OCD, as it made her “really organised”. OCD campaigners were quick to point to the dangers in referring to the serious disorder in such a clichéd manner, and that the symptoms of OCD can in fact be debilitating.

Such symptoms can include: fears that your surroundings are unsafe, fears that you may be terminally ill and even fears that you might want to murder your child. While the majority of people may not know that OCD can yield such severe symptoms, hundreds of thousands of sufferers have no choice but to live with them every day of their lives. To trivialise such a serious disorder can cause significant harm to those sufferers who already feel marginalised from society as a result of their mental disorder. It is vital that sufferers of OCD do not feel alone or further marginalised. Reducing OCD to nothing more than the enjoyment of cleaning does nothing but fuel many misconceptions that already shroud the disorder. As individuals, we can play our part in ensuring that we do our utmost to refrain from referring to OCD in a trite manner, and remain aware that for some people, it is just not a laughing matter.

Although the focus has so far been on OCD, the above principle can be applied to many other mental illnesses. Again, we’ve all been on the tail end of someone telling us how depressed they are (because it’s rainy, because their favourite show has been cancelled…. the possibilities are endless). However (isn’t it blindingly obvious?) there is a vast difference between feeling a bit fed up or upset, and genuinely suffering from depression. It is safe to say that there is a huge stigma attached to clinical depression, with even the NHS homepage stating that ‘some people still think that depression is trivial and not a real illness..’. Such views are only substantiated when depression is further trivialised in everyday rhetoric. However, the public attitude towards depression is so skewed, that even multi-million pound companies use the illness as a marketing ploy to sell their products (for those who haven’t/don’t want to/can’t click the link, New Look were recently vilified for producing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Post-Party Depression’).

Although it may seem that in referring to depression in everyday life, a certain acceptance and understanding of the illness has been reached, it does not to me seem unreasonable to say that the opposite is true. Referring to such a serious illness in a trite manner demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of again, what can be debilitating and life-changing to thousands of sufferers. It has been suggested that stigma towards mental illness is the biggest barrier to mental health care. Stigma can only be combatted by a true understanding of the subject matter, and while depression continues to be trivialised by the public, the barrier will continue to exist.

I’m not writing a lecture; I’m simply trying to make anyone reading it aware of the undesirable power of certain language. This is not to say that mental health shouldn’t be talked about in daily conversation, as of course only through discussion do we gain a true understanding of any subject matter. However, we should be careful about how we throw about terms such as “paranoid”, “bipolar” or even “crazy”. Referring to serious issues such as committing suicide as “com-su” or a sufferer of schizophrenia as a “skitzo” does nothing but downplay hugely serious issues and make it more difficult for sufferers to deal with what can be crippling illnesses. Yes, talk about mental health. Yes, talk about how much you love cleaning. But please try to avoid confusing the two.

Jennifer Leonard