How Does Language Affect Mental Health?

Ahead of Time to Talk Day (February 1, 2024), we look at how language and mental health are linked. The language around mental health is, let’s face it, clunky at best. How do we accurately communicate our experience of our body and mind to another human being? Sometimes it can seem like an impossible task, especially when it comes to words related to mental health.

Language as power.

I’m a big language nerd. I love learning about etymology, how words evolve through the history of their use, the invention of new words, and changes in usage. While I generally disagree with people policing their use of language, it can be empowering to understand the connotations and impact of the words we use, especially when it comes to mental health.

Words can be enormously powerful. For example, when we use bad words, our threshold for physical pain increases. So when we get hurt, perhaps with something as simple as a paper cut, we might naturally say bad words as an instinctive response. This instinct actually helps relieve pain.

Did you know that we laugh more at certain words and sounds that make our mouths form a smile anyway? Words that make us pronounce vowels like “ee” do the same thing, for example, the word “happy” or saying “cheese” when posing for a smiling photo. While the vowels sound with “oo” affects our mood more negatively.

The communication game

The way we describe things also has a lot of power. Expressing to each other what we see, hear, think, and feel is like playing Articulate, the group game where you try to describe a word to your teammates without using any part of that word. Communication is a constant guessing game that throws explanations and descriptions of experiences back and forth.

Just like when you are arguing with a loved one, you are both trying to make the other understand your point of view and why this is important to you; Describing mental health experiences can be incredibly difficult. Sometimes understanding what someone means when they talk about their mental health can be a guessing game.

Art therapy can help people with mental illness That is why it goes beyond language. My therapist and I have found that it is very beneficial for me to draw an experience or feeling on my body instead of talking about it. For someone who makes a living as a writer, the relief of not using words helps me stop intellectualizing and allow other, deeper parts of me to speak. What you have to say can be of great help in unlocking my past and aiding my personal development.

Find out more about how art can help your mental health and wellbeing, read our article on the art of de-stressing.

Terminological terminology?

Even in the mental health community, certain words seem difficult to use. We refer to certain conditions as “acute” or “severe,” which could refer to the duration or intensity of symptoms rather than personal experience or the hidden, life-threatening repercussions of behaviors associated with the condition, such as physical effects of eating disorders.

Similarly, the mental health community and the medical community could refer to “common” mental health conditions or “more commonly diagnosed” conditions. This does not mean that these conditions are popular or fashionable, nor does it indicate that they are a common experience in general for humans, and it certainly does not mean that anyone should feel that their experience is dismissed. Just because depression or anxiety disorder is more common does not mean that the pain and suffering caused to the individual by their condition means less or matters less. Pain is pain.

Whether we are talking about mental health conditions such as struggles, problems, illnesses, conditions or mental health issues, the intention matters as much as the phrase. So while some language is encouraged and other language may be discouraged, checking in with the person you’re speaking to is key when it comes to using mental health language sensitively and productively. Collaboration is key.

Anxious and Sensitive

In a recent NHS mental health assessment, a professional described me as “an anxious person”, which I found strange. I have an anxiety disorder, which has been diagnosed. I suffer from anxiety attacks and panic attacks. But does that make me anxious as a person? Who I am is not my mental health conditions. I didn’t think the description suited me at all.

Another word that has been used to describe me is “sensitive.” This seems to be related to my mental health experiences. Stress is a common problem for many people, and while it is not a mental illness, it can cause it or be a symptom of one. Stress affects me differently than other people, For example. Food also affects me differently, I have a more sensitive response to food. I have sensitive skin and regularly experience rashes or skin conditions during times of stress. And I often feel bad when I’m under stress too.

However, the word “sensitive” has been used negatively towards me. “Don’t be so sensitive” is often used when I stand up for my rights as someone living with a mental illness or point out stigma or discrimination in treatment, belittling behavior or indeed in people’s use of language. people.

Discrimination by downplaying and dismissing

How we use language when it comes to mental health matters in many ways, not just in discrimination, isolation or self-esteem, but also in changing the understanding someone might have about a condition.

You may have heard someone make a run-of-the-mill comment that uses medical terminology related to mental health, such as describing themselves as “a little OCD” just because they like clean things. This common mistake has power. Why does that matter? Well, comments like these could mean that someone experiencing the distressing symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as intrusive thoughts or ritualistic behavior, might not realize they have a mental health condition. Therefore, they may not seek help from a doctor. They may continue to experience distressing and life-inhibiting symptoms that could continue to worsen.

The use of medical language dilutes the meaning and intent of those words, increasing the stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental illness. Therefore, misusing mental health language is discrimination.

In the case of serious mental illnesses (SMIs), such as schizophrenia or psychosis, language can have an impact on the person experiencing the symptoms of these conditions and may even exacerbate those symptoms. People with these conditions, for example, may experience hallucinations that those around them do not experience. People around them may choose to say that these hallucinations “don’t exist,” but to the person experiencing them, they do exist. This can be alienating, isolating for the individual and can exacerbate their anxiety.

In my past, I have had audible, visual, and tactile hallucinations, and in my experience, when I was told that what I was seeing, hearing, or feeling “wasn’t there,” I felt bewildered, terrified, and paranoid because I was being lied to. I could actually see and hear these things, so if I was told so firmly what was true was not in line with my experience, how could I judge what was real or not? Were my own senses lying to me or were these people around me? If my own experience is one thing, but those around me tell me that my experience is invalid, it is not only disempowering but also confusing and very scary. The stress of this made my symptoms worse, my hallucinations became more intense and comprehensive, and I needed a lot of medical help to calm those symptoms.

These experiences were some of the most viscerally extreme and terrifying of my life and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone else, especially without compassionate people using understanding language around them.

Symptomatic diagnosis

Describing symptoms is currently the most common way to receive a diagnosis of a mental illness. While we are approaching a time when, thanks to research, some mental health conditions can be diagnosed through blood tests rather than describing symptoms, diagnoses will remain complicated.

“The diagnosis in Psychiatry is not made based on tests, blood tests or even examinations. They are based on a collection of symptoms. Unfortunately, that often means that the diagnoses we make are not necessarily reliable. By this I don’t necessarily mean that what we tell patients is wrong or unhelpful. But the label we give it can be different depending on the psychiatrist we are.” Dr. Maxime Taquet, MQ researcher

A condition label can be both helpful and hindering. It can be helpful if it is the right diagnosis which can then unlock the most helpful treatment, a new language to communicate experiences effectively and even help a person request reasonable adjustments at work or find other people with more similar experiences to them. yours so you can feel less alone. and more empowered. However, if a person is defined by their label and is not seen as the unique individual that they are, this can be unhelpful and limiting.

Only through research can we move towards a time when all mental health diagnoses are scientifically valid and safe, because without research they are just guesses. That is why MQ Mental Health thanks you for supporting us.

MQ Ambassador James Downs talks about his experience with language and mental health in our Time To Talk Day video. Click on the video below to watch now.

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