Our Director blogs on the language we use to talk about mental health

Sue BakerThere has been a lot of discussion on Twitter over the last few days about the language used to talk about mental health, and in particular, the language we use in the Time to Change campaign.

Everyone has their own preference for the language they use to describe their experiences, and it is hard to find one term that everyone will agree on. We have decided to use the words that the public – whose attitudes and behaviour we seek to change - are most likely to understand. The terms “mental health problem” and “mental illness”, as well as specific diagnostic names (for example depression, bipolar disorder, etc) are widely used and understood by people outside of ‘the mental health world’. We found this in our own research as part of the development of our brand and campaigns, as well as in research carried out by the charities who run Time to Change – Mind (who use the term “mental health problem”) and Rethink Mental Illness (who talk about “mental illness”). We also found that these terms are used by many people with mental health problems.

These are the words that are generally – though of course, not universally - used when someone goes to their GP for help with a mental health problem, when they tell their friends and family about their experiences, or when employers are asked to put in place adjustments to support someone. Because we want people to understand what we mean when we ask them to think and behave differently about these things, we use them too.

There has always been a healthy debate in mental health about language, and long may it continue – it means people are talking about an issue which is still too rarely discussed. But what that does mean is that there is not a consensus around the ‘right’ language. We respect the fact that some reject any form of label, and don’t see their experience as a problem or an illness at all. We also respect the fact that some people find it helpful to see their experience as an illness, and find medical diagnoses a useful way of understanding, talking about, and getting support for what they are going through. There are indeed many people working within and supportive of Time to Change who have lived experience who share both points of view.

We don’t see our role as being to decide which of these points of view is ‘right’, or to tell anyone what language they should use to talk about their own experiences. That’s why we do use both “mental illness” and “mental health problem”. What we are here to do is to improve the way the public actually treat those of us affected by any mental health problem. To achieve this effectively involves using language they understand.

Comments

Proper debate involves

Proper debate involves setting out clearly what you believe in and why (as you've done here). The twitter tactic of "just asking questions" means mental health professionals (who don't believe in any mental illness) avoid having to set out their own position and the evidence for it. I notice they're not "asking questions" or using "critical thinking" about the many problems with their own model, arguments, and language. I wonder why not.

not wired up right

After suffering MH issues for more than 30 yrs i have become accustomed to phrazes such as he's off his head . He's a bit simple, Not wired up right and loads more comments like those. But there is good news stigma is on the decline because there are so many MH sufferers out there. The more we talk about it the easier the burden to carry

Mental health condition is

Mental health condition is far less stigmatising than illness or problem and the general publuc understand this. Why the time to change campaign is not using this baffles me!

Similar to Bethan.

I have similar thoughts to Bethan and far more often than not I use the term 'disorder' simply because that is what it is. It also sounds better and is more kindly accepted than 'illness' and especially 'problem'. Furthermore if you are a new to Time To Change and wish to make a comment please join first leaving your Email. This is not explained well, especially if you have come directly to this page as I did. Luckily I copied my message before it was rejected as it wasn't made apparent to me that one had to become a member to comment.

Term to use in research

I am doing some research around mental illness and social housing tenants and what term to use to describe the condition is vexing. I was going to use mental impairment as this is a term used within the legislation. Mental disorder is used within the government benefit system and mental illness is used within the literature. With all these terms abound, it's no surprise that it is difficult to know how to describe a condition that effects 1 in 4 people. What is the term that would be acceptable??

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