When considering language, my first port of call is a dictionary to make sure I understand exactly what the word means. But language is complicated by the fact that we use words in different contexts and will mean different things as we try to communicate from our unique set of experiences. For example, do you say “loo”, “lav”, “toilet”, “bathroom” or even “restroom”? For some would consider one more posh than another but if you use the more “posh” word, are you placing yourself above someone who would choose the more “common” word?
Definitions can be found in dictionaries, but the real meaning can only be found when considered in social context. When I hear that someone has a mental health condition, to be honest, not much happens in my brain as I know everyone’s story is different and I do not know someone until I hear their story (once I hear this, empathy is the most usual emotion I experience!). But for a lot of people, they hear “mental health” and a torrent of assumptions and questions will cascade through their mind, “are they dangerous?”, “will they be weird?”, “are they going to cry all the time?”, “are they going to be off work sick all the time?” or maybe “will they be like my friend I know has X condition”.
Stigma and discrimination in mental health are rife due to misunderstanding and the presence of barriers. Our world is full of boundaries. It is interesting to observe that social boundaries e.g. “who’s in, who’s out” are harder to shift than physical boundaries e.g. a garden fence.
Is it helpful to consider mental health conditions and continuation of the norm? This could enable people to develop a degree of empathy with those who have a diagnosis. It could, however, have the opposite effect as it is difficult for people to understand that one person can cope with anxiety, while the next person cannot and, where is the threshold for a diagnosis? “If I can cope with feeling down now and again, why can’t you?”.
Do we call it “mental distress” so that people can relate to the words? Or does this diminish the experience?
Is it more helpful to set mental illness apart from “the norm” and consider them “other”? Unfortunately, history has shown us that this leads to high levels of stigma and discrimination as being “other” is associated with being “bad”, “mad”, “imperfect”, “uncontrollable”, “unpredictable” and generally not fitting in, which is just inconvenient!
At times during my illnesses I can see quite easily that my symptoms have been an extension of the norm, a continuum. For example when my mood has been low…how many days is ok and when have I slipped into not really functioning anymore?
But at other times, I’ve definitely felt “other”. For example, I would hear a voice tell me not to eat the yolk of an egg because it contained cholesterol and I obeyed the unquestioning compulsion to only eat the egg white. At the time, I knew it was healthy to eat the whole egg and that I actually needed the nutrients but it was impossible for me to consider this. At times I felt so alienated and “other”, I was crying out (literally) to be “normal”, the only problem being, I had no idea what normal was! Now recovered, I feel my brain works in a completely different way, I still know that the yolk of an egg contains cholesterol but I never question eating it.
There was also a point in time when I decided suicide was not an option. Before this point, I was told it was important to get to this point but I couldn’t understand how this was possible – surely for every human being on earth it’s an option? Maybe not a serious one, but it’s there?! Once I did get to the point where I decided it wasn’t an option, I began to fight for a better life. There is no continuum, suicide is either an option or it’s not.
So what’s the answer? Education! The problem is not whether we’re the same or different, the problem is the value we attach to the differences. In truth we are all different and it’s far more fun to celebrate those differences than set up barriers and fence people into categories.
So how do we view people with mental health problems? Is it a continuum so we’re all the same and this keeps everyone safe from prejudice? or can we tolerate difference?
There’s nothing wrong with trying to relate, empathise and share experiences but what if “other” just means different and doesn’t mean mad, bad or impossible to understand? What’s so scary about different?
What if “other” just means “I have a different story to share”.