The language of suffering

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?

2 thoughts on “The language of suffering

  1. Oooh Barbara, this is such an interesting post, thanks! I totally can see your point, that it is important to not dismiss mental illnesses as something we simply experience, but rather something that can have hugely undesirable consequences. BUT, for the sake of a good discussion (and because I’m a bit of a critical prick sometimes), there’s something I really value about the usage of the term ‘experience’ rather than ‘suffer from’. For me, I have an amazing imagination. This is something that’s allowed me to do some quite cool things: I’m really good at drawing, at thinking outside the box, and being a critical prick. But, this awesome imagination is also something that means I’m also really good at thinking about all the really difficult stuff in the world, and heaps of the potentially awful outcomes that can come out of a situation. As a result I can get super anxious and super depressed about all the messy things that my mind thinks of. Some aspects of this are really awesome for reminding myself to check out of that mindset and get reality checks, or for creating epically dark pieces of art, and some aspects of it, are painful/torturous/awful. Yep, there’s bits of it that I certainly suffer through. But simply “suffering” is not the full story. For me, I think a lot of it comes from having a problematic relationship to all things DSM, I don’t relate to the term illness, and certainly don’t like the idea that something that’s quite inherent to me is something that I “suffer” from. A lot of my framework for this stuff comes around the social and historical impact that the DSM has had/continues to have on my communities (namely trans and queer ones), but that’s a whole other story in an of itself.

    • Hey Sam – thanks : ) I knew it would spark some great debate! And I expect that different people will prefer to use different terms when they describe their own experiences. I can also really relate to the rejection of DSM labels and the idea of these very normal human experiences as “illnesses”.

      I’ve often thought of myself in a similar way to what you describe. I’m a very sensitive person, very empathic and quite tuned in to other people and their emotional experiences, as well as my own. I think this is a good thing, it helps me relate to people in difficult situations and contributes significantly to my work at Youthine and in Psychology. It also means that I have the capacity to become depressed if, for example, I don’t manage my stress levels well, take on board too much, or expose myself to too much negativity without balancing it out in some way.

      So when I am depressed, or have been in the past, I prefer to say I’m suffering – because at those times I am, and it’s an important way to communicate the reality of what’s going on. But at other times, I don’t say that I “suffer” from being a sensitive person! I just am one. I have a huge capacity for empathy and generosity, I also have the capacity to suffer depression at times. I really don’t think I could have one without the other. So I guess like you said, suffering is not the full story of my life.

      I know many people value using the term “experience” rather than “suffer” and I wholeheartedly support that : ) I support the right to describe your life and experience however you choose!!

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