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home : insight & opinion : signs of life
October 19, 2019

9/17/2019 10:39:00 AM
Speak with care on mental health







We think of these words now as epithets - words spoken in anger, derision or bullying. But until as recently as 1994 (for "retarded"), these were actual clinical terms used by doctors, psychologists and social workers to describe various types and degrees of intellectual and mental disability.

So progress has been made (although parents of children with Down Syndrome, in particular, still do battle with the "R-word"). But I began this column with those now-offensive words to make the point that words matter, and it matters very much how we write and speak about mental health, mental illness, the "mentally ill" (I'll get to why that phrase is a problem in a minute), and intellectual and developmental disability. It matters in clinical settings, it matters in public and policy discussion, it matters on social media, and it matters to those experiencing and living with the disorder or illness.

Before we get too far: As some of you read this column and the linked resources, I am afraid you may roll your eyes and the phrase "politically correct" may come to mind. Some people react with exasperation and even anger when language changes to become more accurate, specific and sensitive to conditions and the people who experience them.

But this is not political correctness, it's simply correctness - correcting past misconceptions and labels as our knowledge grows. And those who have a problem with being sensitive to the feelings of others - especially those who are ill or troubled - well, they have a problem. Enough said.

The good news is that there are indeed resources available for learning how to discuss and write about these issues, whether professionally, as an advocate, or just as an everyday denizen of social media.

The American Psychiatric Association has a guide for journalists on reporting about mental health that includes definitions of some of the most common mental-health terms. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has the "Top 10 tips for reporting on suicides." And the Associated Press Stylebook, which is used as a guide by virtually every professional journalist working today, has added a section on mental illness.

These all happen to be guides for reporters. But they are also very useful for families and caregivers; for educators; for businesspeople, administrators, those in law and politics and any decision-makers; and for the average person who wants to know the right way to talk about mental health and mental illness - whether to avoid embarrassment or offense, or (the better reason) to become a better advocate.

Links to the various guides are provided at the end of this article, and there are probably even more. So you can read them yourselves, and learn from them. But I will offer a few "bullet points" as an introduction to these ways in which words do matter - a lot.

• "Mentally ill" (referred to above): Avoid using it as a label. Don't say "He is mentally ill." Say "He has a mental illness." A person is not his or her condition.

Also, because "mental illness" is a general term that encompasses many conditions and disorders, be specific. Say "He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder." "She is a person with schizophrenia." Again, avoiding labeling is a reminder that any condition is only one aspect of a person's life, not its defining characteristic.

And while you are being specific, make sure you are being accurate. Whether you are writing a blog post, an email to a friend about a friend (or a friend of a friend), or posting on social media, make sure you know how and why you know what you know.

Are you sure the person has been diagnosed by a professional? Is the illness/disorder chronic, episodic or even in partial or full remission? Are you sure you're talking about a single condition, or one that may be complicated by other factors? It is always best to let those with mental conditions speak for themselves, or to let the professionals who are familiar with their cases speak for them.

• Avoid descriptions - again, in your personal communications as well as in public or on social media - that connote pity, such as "afflicted with," "suffers from" or "is a victim of." Very few people react positively to pity or portrayal as a victim.

And speaking about mental illness in this way also carries the concern that the person's condition may actually involve feelings of victimhood, or even that the person may actually be a victim - of abuse, assault or bullying, for example.

• Be very careful, especially in the environment in which we live today, about how you talk and think about (and read/hear about) the relationship between crime -especially violent crime - and mental illness.

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