The Mental Health Foundation has a “language primer” on their website, which makes suggestions for ways in which journalists can report on mental illness without using discriminatory language or reinforcing stereotypes.
The document rightly points out that language both reflects and shapes social reality. Language can be a powerful way to stigmatise, or equalise, different groups in society.
Most of the suggestions are pretty common sense. Avoid referring to people as their illness, ie: a person who has schizophrenia, not a schizophrenic. Avoid labelling people as “mentally unwell” and refer to the specific illness, as there are many. And so on.
But the final point is one that I can’t quite get on board with. It’s the suggestion that we avoid using the term “suffering” when we talk about people with a mental illness. We should instead, they say, refer to someone as “experiencing” a mental illness.
Now, as someone who has “experienced” a mental illness myself, I feel that using that term in no way reflects the intense pain and torment having a mental illness usually entails. I absolutely “suffered” from depression, and I suffered badly. It was a horrible experience that I am glad is no longer a part of my life (although I am glad for what I learned from it).
I think that when we use the term “experiencing” rather than “suffering”, we fail to communicate the pain that someone who is currently mentally unwell may be in. I think all the media campaigns in New Zealand to normalise talking about mental illness have been fantastic. But I also think we can go too far out the other side, and become so comfortable talking about it in our easy PC terms that we forget what it actually means to be mentally unwell.
It means that someone is suffering. They are distressed and in need of support. It is the opposite of being happy and well. It is, by definition, an unwelcome experience.
I believe that this is something which is unique to mental illness. Being mentally unwell is an undesirable state of being, from which recovery is possible and a realistic expectation.
I’m not saying we should all immediately start using the word suffering; I only hope to contribute to the discussion as someone who has had a mental illness. Asking me to say I experienced rather than suffered denies me the right to express what I went through in a way that feels accurate and meaningful to me.
Have you suffered from or experienced a mental illness?
What language do you prefer to discuss mental health?