There is no denying that in recent years, the topic of mental health has climbed the political agenda and taken a firm spot on the public radar. Events like World Mental Health Day, observed on the 10th of October each year, have a large part to play in this process of consciousness raising. World Mental Health Day promotes awareness, celebrates education and advocates against stigma, all on a global scale. Importantly, it provides an opportunity to reinvigorate the dialogue around mental health by facilitating discussion. Talking is important, but language is powerful and I think there is no better time than World Mental Health Day to reflect on what we say, what we mean, and who it affects when it comes to the mental health narrative. Words can be encouraging, comforting, and uplifting but they can also be stigmatising, offensive and isolating.
For my Charityworks placement, I’m part of the communications team at Mind, the mental health charity. I’m becoming acutely aware of the role the team plays, not as ‘language police’, but in maintaining brand trust and support through consistent, sensitive and appropriate wording that reflects the values of the charity. I don’t think this is solely the responsibility of somebody working within a mental health charity, though. With 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem, I think it is the responsibility of all of us to be mindful of our language choices.
One thing we can all do is to challenge derogatory terms. Archaic language is still very present in our everyday vocabulary and only contributes to the stigma that people with mental health problems face. Common phrases thrown around include ‘lunatic’ and ‘maniac’. My personal favourite (sarcasm) is ‘psycho’ – this one is often used to condemn women. As Mind explains on its website, ‘psychosis’ is not a synonym for ‘dangerous’ as it’s frequently used – in fact, very few people who experience psychosis ever hurt other people. This terminology is insidiously stigmatising, stemming from times when anyone with a mental health problem would be shunned and feared. There is less obviously offensive language that we need to challenge too. The term ‘committing suicide’ may not appear overtly problematic (it’s entrenched in our vocabulary), but on reflection, it’s loaded with connotations of crime; perhaps if we stop portraying it as a sin (albeit unintentionally), it would be easier to talk about? Something that I think we are all guilty of is the misuse and misappropriation of mental health diagnoses in everyday conversations, which undermines the severity of what people actually face. I’ve heard far too many people claim to be ‘a little bit OCD’ when tidying away their belongings. Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, has some excellent guidelines to help us ‘Mind Our Language’ on its website.
I guess these are examples of more obvious language choices we can make, but what about the slight nuances in how we frame mental health ‘problems’ – what impact can they have? Mind uses the term ‘mental health problems’ as default, whereas Rethink prefers ‘mental illnesses’. Other phrases include ‘disorder’ or ‘distress’. Are these terms interchangeable? I think this is really interesting debate. Some feel that ‘problem’ downplays the severity of more enduring ‘conditions’, whilst others reject ‘illness’ on the basis that mental and physical health perhaps aren’t on the same playing field. And how do we talk about those with a ‘mental health problem’? Are they ‘sufferers’? ‘Service users’? Mind likes the more empowering phrase of ‘experts through experience’. I don’t know the right or wrong answer, which is why I think self-defining is so important. People feel empowered by using their own words – Mind advocates this brilliantly by using the voices of real people with real, lived experiences of mental health problems in everything it does.
From a brand perspective, getting the language right is imperative to Mind fulfilling its mission to help everyone experiencing a mental health problem, so being well-informed on what to say is, too. Mind’s work with young black men exemplifies this. Research found that this demographic dislike the overuse of the term ‘mental health’, as they tend not to separate this with general life ‘struggles’. ‘Mental wellness’ and ‘wellbeing’ were also felt to bear feminine connotations and be far too vague to engage those with specific diagnoses. Word choice really is important.
World Mental Health Day can be incredibly powerful in opening up new conversations and refreshing existing dialogues on challenging topics, but stigma still very much exists. I think the least we can do is to be mindful of our choice of words and make active decisions to avoid stigmatising and derogatory terminology. Today and every day, put your Comms hat on and think carefully about the words you put out.
Blog post by Sophie Clempson, Brand Trainee at Mind