I am almost a year into my role at MHFA England, and what a brilliant year it has been. A year with lots of learning, lots of fun and significant pride in all the work our community is doing to build a mentally literate society and tackle mental health stigma.
Most of my career has been spent working on social justice issues where prejudice, discrimination and stigma exist. Whether that be HIV, sex education in schools, young people’s sexual and reproductive rights, the rights of lesbian, gay, bi and trans communities or mental health, one thing holds true: our language – the words we use either consciously or unconsciously – are important in reinforcing or challenging either stigmatising or positive attitudes.
Over the past year I have had my eyes opened to just how deeply ingrained stigmatising language about mental health is in so many of our vocabularies. Listen in to conversations happening in almost every office, school, home and playground, or read news articles and it probably won’t be long before you will hear descriptions of someone or something as crazy, mental or insane, a bit bonkers or lunatic.
Recently I met with folk working outside the mental health sector. After a few statements about things being insane or crazy, I took a deep breath and played back what I heard. I explained why it was neither accurate nor helpful and focused on the potential impact of our words. I offered a few alternative adjectives that might be useful, including wild, obscene and absurd. There are of course so many more words and we will all have the ones that suit us.
Afterwards two people spoke to me. One person with a mental health condition was glad that I had spoken up; the other said they had never thought about it before and was grateful to have it pointed out.
Deliberately choosing the words we use is important for any social justice issue, including mental health. This year I have learnt far more about just how deeply entrenched mental health stigma is in our society and how that has affected my language. I have thought consciously about the words I use and if and where they are problematic, taken responsibility for understanding why and actively taken steps to find new words (and gifs).
So often we are busy focusing on other people and other things, many of which cost time and money, that we forget to look in the mirror and listen to the words we use.
Simon Blake is chief executive of MHFA England, which provided mental health first aid instructor training