Intention and impact are two linked but not equal things to consider when a conversation begins to go downhill. That I don’t mean to hurt you is not entirely irrelevant – particularly if we know each other, and you are able to bring to my choice of words a knowledge of my character and politics – but what I meant to do and what I did do remain distinctly separate. To suggest my intention matters more than the effect of my words or actions, is to prioritise my need to explain away any of my own uncomfortable feelings – while insisting that you stay silent about yours. This is particularly important when talking to someone from an oppressed group; hurt feelings about being called out for racist /sexist /queerphobic /transphobic/ ableist behaviour does not count – that is our work to do. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about the importance of using inclusive language when we talk about mental health. This requires some reading between the lines.
At first glance these examples may seem harmless, but stigma is sometimes reinforced in ways that aren’t visible at first sight. Overtly derogatory statements are merely the product of what we accept in the spaces in between.
Example A [Headline: 15 Qualities of Mentally Tough People. The phrase 'mentally tough' is crossed out and replaced with 'resilient']
The phrase “mental toughness” carries a certain sense of superiority, and may be helpful to people who’ve had a bad day or felt sad one time. But resilience is something we can all work towards cultivating. It’s also something that can be researched. There are a variety of reasons someone may not be as resilient as they’d like; trauma, abandonment, addiction, instability, discrimination and others have their effects. There is growing evidence that a combination of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) and a lack of protective factors, puts a future adult at risk of decreased resilience, among other things. We don't all start from the same place.
Thankfully, the article defines “mental toughness” in emotional intelligence terms, but the harshness of the phrase remains. Displaying toughness is an often performative exercise used to prove our worth over others, and enacted to secure positions in hierarchical power structures, or to prop up gender stereotypes. That’s a lot of baggage to add to the already fraught conversation around mental health.
You could argue that this criticism is unfair. The article was written to help (presumably well) people, contains some useful information, and was written by a doctor. But how we present information matters. I’m not suggesting that words like toughness and weakness can never be used. I’m also willing to concede that some people find this language genuinely motivating. But when writing for a general audience (and given the article mentions the words tough/toughness 42 times and has the subheading ‘brain hacks’, by general I mean men, because that’s usually what general means – jk/not jk), it’s worth considering the baggage certain words carry. For example, what characteristics or identities do we think of when we think of a ‘mentally weak’ person, and how might that image effect that person’s sense of worth?
Resilience is a fluctuating internal source that responds to our core beliefs about ourselves. If we want to build on it, first we have to believe that there’s something worth building on. Presumably the people who benefit most from increased resilience are those who don’t feel very resilient. We’ll all get there a bit quicker if we don’t have to jump the implied weakness hurdle first.
Example B [Headline: Seeing a Psychologist is not just for the mentally ill. The words 'not just for the mentally ill' have been crossed out and replaced with 'for everyone']
The phrase ‘the mentally ill’ can be considered pejorative on its own; adding ‘the’ in front of any group is shorthand for referring to all the people in it as homogenous and fundamentally different from you. The article encourages all people to seek treatment without shame, with specific reference to sports counselling – but the headline undermines this message. People with mental illnesses aren’t going to psychologists for different reasons than those of us who are going through a difficult, but perhaps transitory time. Help-seeking is the aim, regardless of the specifics. This headline simultaneously encourages us to seek help for certain conditions, while reassuring us that we don’t belong to the same group as others. You don’t have to be crazy to see a psychologist, it says to us – but what about the people we typically do label as "crazy"? How might they interpret this headline?
In recent years we’ve become more aware of the importance of mental health; conditions like depression and anxiety are better understood as a result. Though we don't always discuss them with compassion, mood disorders sit in the public consciousness as ‘safe’, and have been incorporated into what the phrase ‘mental health’ seeks to address. The same cannot be said for psychoactive or personality disorders. These are conditions we typically seek to distance ourselves from.
There is sometimes a divide between the mental health movement, and the experience of mental illnesses itself. The mental health movement (which is largely comprised of awareness raising campaigns), has given us language to talk about wellbeing and the importance of self-care. The resulting increase in mental health literacy in the general public should not be dismissed – but these conversations tend to stop at solutions like meditation and proper sleep hygiene, presumably in an effort to reach as many people as possible. Reminding people to exercise and eat well is not a bad thing, as we often need repeated encouragement to put these habits into place. However, we rarely see the process of finding the right medication, experiences of hospitalisation, how and when to call the CAT Team, or what it's like to return to work after a mental-health-related absence, discussed as part of these campaigns. There's also much to be said about the limited impact of awareness raising on practical solutions like government policy, and access to adequate services. The lack of engagement with these aspects of mental illness is reflected in this headline. Our desire to keep things general and applicable to as many people as possible, often results in surface level activism, which may be alienating to the people most effected by mental health issues. Why seeing a psychologist is for everybody, might have been a more inclusive alternative.
For guidelines on responsible media reporting or inclusions of mental illness/suicide in creative works, see Mindframe's resource page.
If you need support please call Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), or QLife LGBTQIA service (1800 184 527 – limited hours). If living outside of Australia, please seek out services in your country.