Everyone has their own preference for the language they use to describe their experiences, and it is hard to find one term that everyone will agree on. We at Time to Change have decided to use the words that the public – whose attitudes and behaviour we seek to change - are most likely to understand. The terms “mental health problem” and “mental illness”, as well as specific diagnostic names (for example depression, bipolar disorder, etc) are widely used and understood by people outside of ‘the mental health world’. We found this in our own research as part of the development of our brand and campaigns, as well as in research carried out by the charities who run Time to Change – Mind (who use the term “mental health problem”) and Rethink Mental Illness (who talk about “mental illness”). We also found that these terms are used by many people with mental health problems.
These are the words that are generally – though of course, not universally - used when someone goes to their GP for help with a mental health problem, when they tell their friends and family about their experiences, or when employers are asked to put in place adjustments to support someone. Because we want people to understand what we mean when we ask them to think and behave differently about these things, we use them too.
There has always been a healthy debate in mental health about language, and long may it continue – it means people are talking about an issue which is still too rarely discussed. But what that does mean is that there is not a consensus around the ‘right’ language. We respect the fact that some reject any form of label, and don’t see their experience as a problem or an illness at all. We also respect the fact that some people find it helpful to see their experience as an illness, and find medical diagnoses a useful way of understanding, talking about, and getting support for what they are going through. There are indeed many people working within and supportive of Time to Change who have lived experience who share both points of view.
We don’t see our role as being to decide which of these points of view is ‘right’, or to tell anyone what language they should use to talk about their own experiences. That’s why we do use both “mental illness” and “mental health problem”. What we are here to do is to improve the way the public actually treat those of us affected by any mental health problem. To achieve this effectively involves using language they understand.
Sue Baker is Director of Time to Change, www.time-to-change.org.uk
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