Over the festive period we all do embarrassing things. We drink to much, spend to much, get caught in heady public encounters under the mistletoe with Jane/John/Lucy/Tom, etc. These moments make us awkward and blush. We feel the need to explain ourselves come January, and swear to each other that in the New Year we’ll be more responsible, rational, and all together ‘more together’. These embarrassments are real, and we feel embarrassed by them. However, what we shouldn’t find embarrassing, is talking about mental health. Unlike singing Madonna loudly and out of tune at our best friends wedding. Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of.
Why then is there still a stigma? And more crucially, how can that stigma be broken in 2016? Talking, is a start. Recognising that 1-4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any one year, and not feeling sheepish to admit that the mind, like the body, can go awry — and that during those times the person suffering will need support. Acknowledging, that like cancer, mental health problems simulataniously transcend, and are deeply embedded within social groups. Under these terms, we all run the same risk, and all deserve the same care: in the community, at work, in the hospital and in recovery.
If such a high percentage of us do suffer from mental illness, it might be wise for us to consider the impact of what we say and how we say it. The media has played an unprecedented role in the misuse and generalisation of mental health related words. Tabloid headlines bannering the labels ‘schizo,' ‘psycho,’ and ’nutter,' as terms to describe all forms of mental illness -- always in a negative light. This is not political correctness gone mad, rather a misuse of power on behalf of the media. If the stigma is to be lifted then the first step must be to recognise that 99% of mental health stereotypes are incorrect.
Then there are the words relating to mental health that come in the form of adjectives (and we are all guilty of using them). So lets try to recognise negative semantics. For example, the weather is not schizophrenic, it’s changeable, and it’s changeable because we live in the UK, which is a country that is affected by a number of different air masses. The state of politics today is not bipolar, it has a spectrum, and it has a spectrum because it is made up of many people, voicing many different opinions. Which, with luck, allows for a democracy. When we use mental health terminology as adjectives, we not only unintentionally misuse the word, there is a high possibility that we will stigmatise someone around us, someone who is suffering.
Finally, lets try not to trivialise mental health. It’s important to recognise that mental illness can and does kill. Fifty percent of patients suffering from a mood/psychotic/or eating disorder will attempt suicide at least once. It is crucial then for us not to use these labels lightly. Jen does not have schizophrenia if she loses her temper — she is just angry. Jack does not have OCD if he likes to keep his desk tidy — he is just organised. And James is not bipolar if he is happy one day and sad the next — he is experiencing a normal range or emotions. Talking about mental illness with ease does not mean reducing a diagnosis to explain healthy mental states that are seemingly out of character. It means that we should discuss mental illness with the same level of compassion and empathy as we discuss cancer and heart disease — because people would never dream of trivialising these illnesses.
So, this New Year lets try to reduce the stigma of mental health by exchanging words such as ‘crazy,’ ‘mad,’ ‘bonkers’ and ‘loony’ for the terminology that we really mean (this will benefit our vocabulary as well as our society). Also, instead of using a mental illness to describe a friends/ family members personality, take a few moments to research what the symptoms of that mental illness actually are, and how those symptoms affect the people who live with that illness. Not only will this allow for a greater scope of personal knowledge surrounding mental health, if it does turn out that you were right about your friend/ family member you will be able to find vital support networks. Lastly, if you do feel like you might be suffering, or if you think that someone you know is suffering. Talk about it. It might feel, hard and odd, and strange and weird -- but remember, unlike the Christmas party, mental health is nothing to be ashamed of -- and there is help out there.