“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.