Mental health words of which to be wary

I am wary of repeating mental health prejudices, prejudices that appear as truths. That is often the case with extant prejudices, they are presented to us as truths, we accept them as truths and repeat them as truths. History reminds us of that, but we very often observe the realities of the lessons of history.

Take the word “stigma.”

It is common today to say, accept and repeat, “there is” a stigma to mental illnesses.

“There are” (that “there are” is far more accurate) people who proffer that prejudice, but we are none of us obliged to repeat them. It is neither obligatory nor at all helpful to do so. Rather than do so it is wiser to ask, “Specifically what do you mean by that?” It is best to get past that innuendo, those six letters, to the meaning behind it.

I make the suggestion for two reasons: one, it is what graphically lies behind those six words that one needs to reveal, those facts one needs to hear. And two, asking the question, “Specifically what do you mean by that?” may give someone the opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to get beyond what has become a habituated answer.

The effects of promulgating “there is” a stigma to mental illnesses are broad. Doing so has interdicted research into these illnesses, funding for that research is nowhere near the funding necessary to secure answers. It has interfered with the interest in performing that research. It has caused the development of two separate and highly unequal systems to health issues. We remain confronted with those two separate and highly unequal responses. Until we can surrender the idea of “stigma” that is not likely to change.

Consider this phrase: “the” mentally ill.

“The” mentally ill deteriorates to caricature. Its use has become commonplace. It has risen to law, twice it was employed by the U.S. Supreme Court, unanimously. It is employed by the most prestigious of newspapers, sometimes in referencing that court, and sometimes wholly independent of that reference. Like “the” Blacks, it is meant to dissemble, mislead, disinform, whether recognized as having that purpose or not. It is best avoided.

Then consider “mental” illness.

Because we had no understanding of these illnesses, we confused their outward physical manifestation with the illnesses. We saw them as “mental” because we had no other perspective upon which to draw. We had earlier done the same with epilepsy. We saw it, at times unexplainable, physical manifestations as “possessions.”

We are beginning to understand they are not “mental”, i.e. “of the mind,” but of the brain. As research into the brain continues, we are slowly replacing myths with science.

Slower to change has been our linguistic references, our words. My hope is that with time, we will begin to pay as much attention to them for words form perceptions, and perceptions drive responses.

Harold Maio
Ft. Myers, Florida