“That’s just mental.”
How often have we heard this expression, or even used it ourselves without thinking? The word ‘mental’ has long been synonymous with ‘crazy’, ‘nuts’, ‘bonkers’, and many more adjectives with negative connotations. You roll your eyes and tap your head: ‘mental’ people are not to be taken seriously. Better, and certainly easier, to write them off.
In reality, ‘mental’ is derived from the late Latin word ‘mentalis’ (of the mind). Now, we all have a mind, of course, and therefore mental health, but growing up, this type of language put me off talking about the mental health issues I was experiencing. Even as a young child, I was subject to delusions and heard voices in my head, and later on I became extremely depressed to the point where I tried to take my own life at the age of 20. And yet all that time I was extremely concerned about what people would think of me. How would they judge me?
Just as important as language is the imagery associated with mental health that we use
Even after I received my diagnosis it took a long time to tell friends that I had schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There is a lot of stigma attached to schizophrenia, and the media can be less than helpful in this respect. As recently as 2014, The Sun featured the headline ‘1,200 KILLED BY MENTAL PATIENTS’. Following a complaint by the mental health charity Time to Change, a clarification was printed, but there is little doubt that the tabloids in particular would have you believe that all those with this condition are violent and dangerous.
Of course the truth is quite the opposite as all evidence shows that the majority of people with schizophrenia are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. That is not the perception the general public has though, and this is very much due to the language the media have always used when talking about the condition.
Having tried to take my own life, I’m often asked how I feel about the expression ‘commit suicide’. The term ‘commit’ is usually associated with something criminal. Suicide was decriminalised in the 1960s, however, so it seems strange that we still use the phrase ‘commit suicide’. I have spoken to a lot of individuals and families who have lost loved ones to suicide and find this phrase extremely upsetting. Their loved one who took their own life acted in the way they did out of overwhelming pain and despair. It’s a matter of education in my view. I regularly used the term ‘commit suicide’ myself until a family member of someone who had taken his life explained how hearing that phrase always upset her. Now I avoid saying the phrase when talking about suicide.
Educating people about mental health could make a big difference
Language is extremely important and I believe it should begin in schools. We never spoke once about mental health when I was growing up. The only reference I had to it was the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which I was shown when I was at college aged 17. The film scared me and stopped me from speaking out about my own deteriorating mental health.
If we can educate people from a young age about mental health and how to talk about it, including what language to use, it could make a big difference to many people.
Also, I think just as important as language is the imagery associated with mental health that we use. Too often we see people clutching their heads in distress or curled up in the corner of the room when mental illness is featured in the media. Of course at times this may be some people’s reality when they are struggling with their mental health, but there are also millions of people in the UK with mental health conditions who are out there living and functioning each day who aren’t represented justly in the media.
From the colleague sitting opposite you at work to the stranger standing next to you on the train, mental health issues affect so much of us in so many different ways.
Therefore, mental illness needs to be portrayed sensitively, fairly and accurately if we really want to remove the stigma associated with it that has too long existed in our society.
The Stranger on the Bridge: My Journey from Despair to Hope by Jonny Benjamin and Britt Pflüger is out now (Bluebird, £16.99) @MrJonnyBenjamin
Main image: Lemsipmatt/Flickr