Week 3 of Mental Health Awareness Month is focused on promoting acceptance and compassion surrounding mental illness. As part of this week’s message, SAMHSA notes that each of us plays a role on one another’s mental wellness journey. The language we use to talk about mental health is a fundamental consideration when we talk about how to promote acceptance and compassion. The language we use can either promote a sense of compassion, inclusion and support or it can be alienating and result in a person feeling judged, isolated, and alone.
The language used to describe mental health has evolved over time and reflects societal attitudes and understanding (or lack thereof) of mental health conditions. For example, in the ancient and medieval periods, mental health issues were attributed to demonic possession, witchcraft, or moral failings. Terms like “possessed by evil spirits” or “divine punishment” were used to describe mental health issues. Thankfully, over time our understanding and our language has evolved.
In the 19th and 20th centuries mental health became increasingly medicalized. Terms such as “madness”, “insanity” or “mental disorders” were used to describe various conditions. In the mid-20th century, we saw a significant shift when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was introduced which helped to standardize diagnostic criteria. Also worthy of noting during this time was the movement to deinstitutionalize people who were experiencing mental health challenges, and the value of providing community-based support.
Today there is a focus on the recognition and importance of person-first language. We know and understand that a person is not their diagnosis, so rather than using terms like “schizophrenic”, we say “a person living with schizophrenia”. Another example is “a person with a mental health condition”, or “a person experiencing depression” which is language that is more compassionate and inclusive. Language plays a crucial role in mental health because it shapes our understanding, perceptions, and attitudes toward mental health conditions and the individuals experiencing them.