"Campaigners' duty to reshape language?"

During my recent trip to London to speak on a panel at the MQ Science Meeting, I briefly touched on my belief that anyone involved in mental health, either as a campaigner, a clinician, or a service user, has a duty to reshape the language we use. As is generally the case, time meant I couldn't get everything out that I wanted to say, so I made a mental note to write about it later. And so here we are.

It wasn't until 2015 that it was pointed out to me that mental health and mental illness are not the same thing. Since then, I've made an effort to check myself when I'm talking and ensure I'm not using mental health in place of mental illness. Here's the thing; everyone has mental health. The difference is, some people have poor mental health, and others have good mental health. Those with poor mental health may have a mental illness and may find that they go on to receive a diagnosis as such.

Recently, I've noticed that people are becoming better at using the correct terms at the correct times, but occasionally people still get mixed up. It's mostly people who are new to the world of mental health and mental illness, but it always strikes me as bizarre when I see things like “mental health is such a massive issue”. These days such statements seem alien to me. Mental health is not inherently a bad thing, the issue is with mental illness.

Following on from that, I also believe we have a duty to gently remind people that sadness does not equate to depression, and that nervousness does not equate to anxiety. You see, to mix these things up for a long period of time only serves to make things harder for people who are actually living with anxiety or depression.

There are already a plethora of people who tell us that we only have to make a choice to be happy, when the reality could not be much further from these bold claims. Reinforcing the idea that illness and emotions are one and the same is damaging.

So next time you want to make a statement about how big an issue mental health is, check yourself. Do you mean mental illness?

Next time you're feeling sad or nervous and feel inclined to hyperbolise the situation, consider the damage it can have for people who are living with the illnesses you're trivialising.

We all have a duty to check our language, and if we pull together, then we will one day reshape language. I believe that's a big chunk of the battle in tackling stigma surrounding mental illness.