We need to change the way we talk about mental health

It seems a sad indictment on society’s approach to mental illnesses that only on the 18th of December were mentally ill teenagers no longer allowed to be detained in police cells. Yet this is just one of many issues, when the very way in which we speak about mental health is often problematic. The fact that that The Guardian felt the need to release a video explaining how (not) to talk about mental health suggests the scale of the problem. A major problem with how we talk about mental illnesses is using them as adjectives. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for example, is often jokingly used to describe being overly tidy or organised. OCD is in fact a serious illness which can manifest in a constant fear of harming oneself or others, as well as in myriad other unwanted obsessions. Similarly, the outrageous use of phrases such as “I am going to kill myself about this” or “I am going to slit my wrists” is all too common. These signs of serious distress are essentially diminished by using these phrases to refer to such minor matters as an essay deadline.  Such language re-registers terms which refer to serious conditions: instead, they become comic or simply trivial, disconnected from the devastating impact which they can have on people’s lives.

There is an argument from people like Frankie Boyle that nothing is off-limits when it comes to comedy or discussion, with the comedian parodying the charity Rethink’s campaign on schizophrenia in his show, Tramadol Nights. As a fan of the late and controversial Joan Rivers – and someone who usually strays well beyond the norms of political correctness – I can sympathise with this view. But the issue lies not in the idea of making light of people’s problems, but at the lack of understanding of mental illnesses, and the stigma of mental health that these ‘jokes’ perpetuate.

Despite the fact that a quarter of British adults will experience at least one mental illness in their lifetime, the topic of mental health is still not discussed well. When the most common appearance of mental illnesses is in the constant misuse of terms like OCD, a general ignorance of the real issues becomes the norm. When people seek to understand something, it is understandable that those without proper information associate mental health with the joke and not the reality. And so anorexia becomes not the painful debilitating illness that it is, but being thin or refusing food. Self-harm becomes an exaggerated fantasy or even a throwaway joke, not the desperate act that 13 percent of 11-16 year olds commit. Depression becomes a bad mood that people can control, not a chemical imbalance in the brain. The horror of panic attacks, which can include nausea, palpitations and chest pains, are reduced to just feeling a bit nervous. Joking about mental health issues changes the association that people have with them. And so the misinformation about mental health continues to spread.

Mental illnesses are not simply adjectives, they are – and the clue is helpfully in the name – illnesses. When they are used so flippantly, they not only minimise the damage which mental illnesses can do in the public eye: they also serve to make sufferers feel as if their illness is not valid, and that they should not be feeling how they feel. This prevents people suffering with these issues from accessing the support that they need, and makes society as a whole an inhospitable place for the emotionally vulnerable.

But this is bigger than day-to-day conversation, and the retail industry has cynically capitalised on this stigma. In 2013, Tesco and Amazon were forced to remove an ‘OCD Chopping Board’ from sale after complaints that it trivialised the mental illness – the same product is still on offer online from various retailers including the Science Museum. Tesco was also forced to withdraw a ‘psycho ward’ costume, and Asda an equally inappropriate ‘mental patient’ outfit, both throwing money at their embarrassment by subsequently making donations to the charity Mind. In 2014, the government finally woke up this issue with the Liberal Democrat care and support minister, Norman Lamb, urging retailers to behave more responsibly to avoid stigma. Lamb also spoke out this Christmas about the danger that over-stretched accident and emergency services are letting down people with mental health problems. Unfortunately, the government cannot change attitudes easily, and due to insufficient regulation, it’s not hard to find that companies like Amazon and eBay need more persuasion before they adhere to Lamb’s advice.

The English language is varied enough that using terms like ‘OCD’ and ‘depression’ out of context is totally unnecessary – we could just as easily find the word which adequately describes the situation, rather than using these terms without thinking. When used in this way, they are entrenching the stereotypes associated with them, making the lack of understanding about the illnesses so much worse. So, once again, I find myself confronted with the frustrating reality that I cannot change the world. But I can moan about it, and moan about it I will, until the day comes when people throw their ‘psycho ward’ costumes in the bin and stop treating mental health as material for jokes which hurt the most vulnerable.