September 5, 2012

James, a Time to Change bloggerI have noted for several years that the mass media, including the BBC commonly refer to people presumed to be diagnosed with schizophrenia by such terms as 'a schizophrenic man' or ‘a paranoid schizophrenic’.

I am sure no deliberate offence is intended and there have been far worse examples in the media when discussing people with mental health problems but such language does contribute to the stigma that people with severe and enduring mental illnesses have to deal with throughout their lives.

A person is not the sum total of the symptoms that they experience, these can vary greatly from individual to individual and nor are all individuals always symptomatic. 'Schizophrenia' has unfortunately frequently come to be seen as a negative term that refers to certain clusters of symptoms of mental ill health and therefore labelling somebody as ‘schizophrenic’ can mean that an individual immediately has to deal with many misconceptions.

With this in mind, I wrote to the BBC and requested that they take some positive steps to try and reduce the misunderstanding of many in society and, hopefully, increase the public’s understanding that somebody who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia has just as much right as others to be defined by terms other than their illness.

I also wanted to highlight how often 'schizophrenic' is used, unchallenged, on the BBC (again it is not alone in this) as a supposedly humorous or ‘learned’ adjective such as 'schizophrenic taste' or ‘such and such department was positively schizophrenic'. I feel this is insensitive to those individuals and their families that are affected by this illness.

The BBC replied to my complaint 

The BBC replied to my complaint by stating: ‘We feel "schizophrenic" is a correct and appropriate term to describe someone with schizophrenia…. As the Oxford English Dictionary states, the word means simply "a person with schizophrenia". The word itself carries no hidden meaning - thus by way of example, in a similarly medical context we would also use the word "diabetic" to describe a person "suffering from" or "diagnosed with" diabetes.’

I feel that quoting the dictionary does not begin to address the complex issue of how language is used in society. It neither contributes to understanding how stigma can be reinforced and nor does it consider the views of the many individuals with the condition, their families & professionals that object to the term.

In addition dictionaries have many terms that are no longer acceptable in public usage

In addition dictionaries have many terms that are no longer acceptable in public usage and it is those that are affected by such terms that have predominantly brought about changes. Racial terms that were once thought acceptable are no longer deemed so, as are past 'medical' terms that have fallen out of favour: idiot, spastic.

An example was drawn with the word 'diabetic' but it may have been noted that an individual with cancer or HIV is not described by their illness in a comparable way. More appropriate comparisons would be to highlight that People with Learning Disabilities or Alzheimer's Disease are now, more fittingly, referred to as such.

some have argued for the renaming of schizophrenia altogether

I believe that if greater distance is created between terms that are deemed acceptable in the mainstream, and those that are obviously unacceptable, ie 'schizo', that the outright offensive will be much more easily challenged in the future. Indeed some have argued for the renaming of schizophrenia altogether, as has occurred with conditions like cerebral palsy and bipolar disorder, and this could potentially have the knock-on effect that apologists can no longer defend the offensive as being 'simply' medical terms.'

James Beirne is a Senior Nurse Practitioner, Dual Diagnosis, of The 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Mental Health Trust.

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