Sunday, September 4, 2011

Words and the Lack of Them in Mental Illness

Mental illness is a "no casserole" disease that also provides a vocabulary that smart people misuse at will. It's all part of the stigma. Yet it causes much resentment in the mental health community. Much of it mine. Thus, this rant:

One of my friends who dealt with the mental illness of a child put it best. The mental illness got few signs of sympathy or concern. But when she got cancer, the casseroles and cards never stopped coming. It made her angry. She says dealing with the cancer was nothing compared to dealing with mental illness.

It's OK to ask about the illness. If you would ask how a person with cancer is doing, ask how the person with mental illness is doing. And if you are on the receiving end of the question, and the real answer is "just awful," the quick polite response is: "About the same." 

Cancer used to have stigma, and we are all glad that it has changed. Cancer is also one of those illnesses that has contributed vocabulary.  Nixon had "a cancer" on his presidency, John Dean famously said. Maybe that bothers people with cancer, too. I don't know.

I do know that people in the mental illness community are upset at the misuse of terminology. I literally stopped reading or listening to a famous female Bible teacher because she misuses the word "schizophrenic." People somehow think it's OK to use this word to describe a dysfunctional situation. That is profoundly disrespectful to everyone who suffers from the disease. Too many people who try to be politically correct about every other part of language fail to use psychological terms accurately. It contributes to stigma. 

Feeling resentment about the "no casserole" effect and misused language of mental illness isn't good for anybody, of course. And few caregivers have the energy to inform people of how offended they have been by the lack of caring. So just know this: They have been offended.

So, now and again, ask how things are. Try not to use disease names to describe non-diseased states (or even Congress, given that it is kind of diseased). End of rant.

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