Three things to change when we talk about mental health

My identity isn’t my illness, and vice versa.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Finally, it seems, we’re all talking about mental health.

I’m moved daily by the personal stories about mental illness I read on social media and humbled by the bravery and authenticity of those people who share. Talking about mental illness can be hard ― doubly so when you’re talking about yourself – so these conversations aren’t just important, they’re vital. We’re learning to share, we’re learning to listen, and we’re learning to hold space for others to be their gloriously imperfect and sometimes messy selves.

Talking about mental health matters, so if you’ve had one of these conversations, I’m giving you a virtual fist bump right now, because you’re an agent of change, and you’re helping make the world a better place.

What happens beyond these conversations, though, remains somewhat uncharted territory, especially if you feel inspired to carry on this good work, so for #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek I’ve compiled a quick guide to three easy things you can do to change perceptions of mental illness.

Before I start, though, a quick word about freedom of speech and so on: I certainly don’t see myself as the Language Police, and I have no desire (or energy) to be telling people what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I’m merely offering suggestions, and whether you agree or disagree, I hope they at least give you pause for thought, or trigger a conversation about how we talk (and think) about mental illness. I understand that language evolves and meaning and emphasis changes, and I also understand that it can feel a bit jarring to consider that you have a conscious choice when it comes to using your words. If that’s the case, take heart: if your grandparents’ generation can change the way they talk about race, you can totally do the same for mental illness.

3 ways to change how we talk about mental health

1. Let’s say “died by suicide”

Suicide was a criminal offense in the UK until 1961, with failed suicides sometimes leading to prosecution and imprisonment. That’s where the idea of “committing” suicide comes from, in the same vein as committing perjury or fraud. It hasn’t been a crime for over 50 years, so let’s stop using stigmatizing language to describe it. “Completing suicide” or “dying by suicide” are better alternatives.

2. Let’s end the “suffering.”

Illness, whether of the body of the mind, can cause pain, distress and misery, and these symptoms are often the first signs that something’s amiss. Nevertheless, illness often ebbs and flows, or can be mitigated by treatment. Saying that someone’s suffering from a condition places them as a victim at the mercy of their health. For this reason, I choose to say that I live with bipolar disorder, rather than suffering from it. It makes it feel a little more manageable, and empowers me to remember that my life isn’t just about being chronically unwell.

And while we’re on the subject, let’s try to separate people from the conditions they live with. Saying that someone IS borderline, or bipolar or OCD is a bit odd, when you think about it. My identity isn’t my illness, and vice versa. You wouldn’t say, “Ooh, Robert is cancer,” or “Mary is diabetes,” would you?

3. Let’s find better ways to describe antisocial behavior.

Using mental health conditions to describe things that annoys us has the potential to perpetuate stigma for the people who live with these illnesses. Wanting to wear matching socks or underwear is not the same as living with OCD, and if your partner blows hot and cold it’s unlikely they’re displaying signs of schizophrenia (and while we’re here, can we all solemnly pledge to strike the word “schizo” from our vocabularies, please?)

People who live with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims, rather than perpetrators, of violent crime, and yet there’s a tendency in the murkier regions of the media (and amongst armchair psychologists) to assume these acts are clear indicators of mental illness. This kind of thinking breeds fear and ignorance and stigma, so let’s challenge it when we see it, and if you see a news story which depicts mental illness in a damaging way, the charity, Time to Change, have great advice on tackling it.

If you’re doing these things already, good on you; if these are new concepts, then good on you, too, for taking a few minutes to consider them. I hope you’ll give them a try and enjoy wielding your words’ power with mindfulness and intention. In the big scheme of the language we use, these are tiny changes but they have the potential to fight stigma, nurture compassion, and make navigating life with mental illness a little bit easier for people like me.