Why I don’t use the term ‘mental health is*ues’
I’ve struggled with mental illness for all of my adult life and, debatably, much of my adolescence as well. As a child I was perpetually afraid of everything and as an adult I’ve had my fair share of suicidal ideation. I’ve self-harmed, spent hundreds of hours in counselling and I take medication to cope with anxiety, depression and whatever other as-of-yet undiagnosed condition makes up this complicated cocktail of my being.
I’m exactly the person one might point to and attribute ‘mental health issues’. It wouldn’t technically be incorrect, but it is -as far as I’m concerned- just a little bit of a misnomer.
For the record, before I go any further, I must point out that this is purely a personal preference. I do not begrudge anyone who self-identifies as having mental health issues. You do you! I don’t even begrudge anyone assigning the term to me, although I do hope that they would listen openly to my perspective on why it doesn’t resonate with me.
I’ll happily admit to being a person with mental health struggles or mental illness. Proudly, even. It’s a part of who I am and a part that I’ve worked on for most of my life. Mental illness forced my hand and made me build myself into a better, stronger and more compassionate person.
However, in 2018 when my grandmother replied to one of my mental health posts on Facebook, she commended me on dealing with my ‘problem’ and facing my ‘issues’. She meant no harm, of course. On the contrary, her message was full of love and encouragement. But it just didn’t sit right with me and it was the first time I was confronted with my own discomfort at those three words combined: ‘mental health issues’.
In short, to me, words like ‘problem’ and ‘issue’ are synonymous with blame.
Generally, a person or character described as having an ‘issue’ is one who is in some way troublesome — someone who lashes out or can’t be trusted in some shape or form. The negative phrases are thrown at them as a sort of verbal retribution for unjust actions, social crimes committed or anything else deemed unseemly. Basically, someone with an ‘issue’ or a ‘problem’ is seen as someone who is at fault. And I refuse to be blamed for my mental illness.
Mental health struggles
While I don’t consider myself to be someone with an issue or a problem, I do wholeheartedly confess to having faced mental health struggles or mental health difficulties.
Do you see the difference?
Not everyone will agree with me, I know, but I favour the language above because it highlights that my conditions are something I’m overcoming. They’re a facet of my being for which I need support.
Words like ‘struggle’, ‘difficulty’ or ‘condition’ more accurately describe my relationship with my mental health than anything that is synonymous with fault or guilt.
I’m not ‘guilty’ of having a mental illness. I’m someone who has a little extra weight on my shoulders when I wake up in the morning; someone who might need you to have patience with me in my moments of panic; someone who needs a pill organiser to manage meds and won’t be available sometimes because I’ll have to go to doctors appointments or counselling. I need support; not a problem label.
The state of my mental health truly is a struggle and, for me, there’s no better or more accurate way to describe it.
The term ‘mental illness’ is a curious case.
It’s a term I am very comfortable with but it definitely comes with a hefty dose of stigma, and that’s rooted in historical misuse, mainly in the media. But whether we like it or not, mental health conditions do in fact fall under the umbrella term of ‘mental illness’. Nevertheless, I completely understand why someone would opt out of calling themselves mentally ill. In fact, I’ve even debated the topic in my very progressive place of work.
For context, I work at Ireland’s leading LGBTQ+ publication GCN Magazine, and I was pitching a series to my team called ‘Coming out as mentally ill’, in which we find queer voices to share their experiences with various mental illnesses. Specifically, I wanted to examine the parallels or differences between coming out as queer versus coming out about mental health conditions. This arose from my own personal experiences of coming out as bisexual and someone who suffers from depression, but we also covered disordered eating, generalised anxiety disorder and autism.
During a team meeting I gave an update on our progress with the series and one colleague suggested we rename the series to remove the term ‘mentally ill’ and replace it with ‘mental health’. She suggested this, very well-meaningly, to circumvent stigma.
For me, though, removing ‘mentally ill’ would diminish the significance of the series. Everyone in the world has mental health, whether positive or negative, but not everyone has mental illness. And it is, indeed, an illness.
Just like any other medical condition, what I have is an illness and calling it anything else underplays the severity of what I and people like me have to go through on a daily basis. Like someone with two broken legs, sometimes I can’t get out of bed. Like someone with gastroenteritis, sometimes I go through vomiting spells. Like someone with chronic fatigue, sometimes my energy levels are so low I can’t do anything other than consume media, often to drown out my own thoughts.
I take medication; I work with doctors; I’m seeking treatment. I am ill. And I want people to know that because I think it plays a key part in their understanding of who I am as a person and the sort of accommodations I might need.
So I will happily bear the label of ‘mentally ill’ but I do so in the hopes that people are well-enough informed to understand that the term isn’t synonymous with ‘disturbed’ or anything to that effect. Others with less optimism might prefer not to self-identify as mentally ill because it does, undeniably, come with stigma. That’s a completely valid choice too. After all, people battling mental health conditions have enough on our plates; there’s no need to invite stigma to join the party.
Why does it matter?
Language is important and, to many of us, so are labels. Labels can put you in a box or they can free you. Labels unite communities and facilitate support networks for those who need them. And in the case of mental health, language can be very divisive.
Someone with a struggle, a difficulty or an illness is someone who inspires much more empathy than someone with a ‘problem’ or an ‘issue’, at least in my humble opinion.
Maybe to some people, it doesn’t matter at all. Maybe some people couldn’t care less what language and labels others assign to them and to those people I say, fair play. I commend you. But for someone like me, language is a powerful tool that can shape the perceptions of those who are less-informed on my condition.
The pen, as they say, is mightier than the sword. Words can hurt but they can also heal, and coming to terms with the fact that I have an illness means that I can navigate my life without guilt about being a depressed person.
So, to those of you who have struggles like mine, use whatever language empowers you. And to those of you who don’t, use language kindly and sense-check with your peers to see what language makes them comfortable. We’ll all thank you for it.