The way we use language to talk about mental illness has a significant impact on how society understands specific conditions. Medical terms such as ‘bi-polar’ or ‘depression’ create a framework of symptoms or behaviors that individuals might be expected to exhibit in social situations, leading to common stereotypes and misunderstanding. While medical language is valid for certain purposes, it is necessary to develop a more nuanced lexicon to enable suffers to express the complexity of their own subjective experiences and to enrich social understandings of mental health issues.
I got really excited this week, when I came across The Reader Organisation’s annual conference titled “We need a new language for mental health”. This call to arms seems to acknowledge the importance of language in defining mental crisis. The title fired my imagination and got me asking, what might a new language for talking about mental health sound like? What kinds of words might be most adequate for reflecting the complexity of emotions such as fear, anxiety and anger?
The conference will be framed around The Reader’s long running project Get Into Reading, which runs reading groups in the community and mental health care services. Research commissioned by The Reader has evidenced that these collaborative sessions lead by a specialist facilitator have been effective in creating increased well being for people with dementia, depression and sufferers of chronic pain.
The material read at these sessions varies widely, from Great Expectations and Cider with Rosie to poetry by Robert Frost and Mary Oliver, suggesting that the kind of language that proves to be rehabilitative often deals broadly with human experience rather than taking a narrow focus on mental illness and how to cure it. Perhaps the new language that is needed to activate better understandings of mental health is simply one that is more in touch with the complexity of being alive rather than the specificity of illness itself. As Jane Davis Director of The Reader explains:
“We increasingly feel the pressure to talk about our work in medicalised terms – intervention, service, outcomes – terms which limit the power of what humanly it is that is making the difference. I want to find a new language, so that people don’t have to say, ‘I’m sick’, when they’re suffering the human condition.”
I will be attending the conference tomorrow and intend to report back next week on my experiences. Watch this space!