A common language for talking about mental health and mental ill-health

There are a few words that have been bothering me for a while now… well not the words, just the order they are coming in.

There are widely publicised figures of the cost of depression, anxiety and mental health, to the economy… and its the latter that is bothering me immensely.

At a recent Business in the Community event I was sat at a table with like-minded colleagues from other organisations who all cared about the subject and some were very eloquent in their points and gave good advice on landing decent corporate well-being programmes, but there seemed to be a problem. The event was introduced by a well-respected executive from a major insurer who use the words “what we are doing to de-stigmatise mental health”. Also speaking was a highly engaging representative from Time to Change who do fabulous work. Their strap line is “lets end mental health discrimination”. I have absolutely no doubt that the intentions are spot on but, for those of us that are committed to fulfilling those intentions we need to be aiming towards the use of a common language that actually supports the objective.

My great friend Andy Gibson, whom I have had both the pleasure of seeing speak on how the human brain works, as well as melting his parents garden furniture in the mid 90s, put the thought in my head when he said on the matter “our language is broken”.

The words that are bothering me are the use and mis-use of ‘mental health’ and ‘mental ill-health’. There is no stigma about being ‘mentally healthy’, or any discrimination against the same. For whatever reason we talk, or indeed think, about mental health in the negative. The real issues that campaign groups rightly focus on are around the stigmatisation and discrimination of depression, anxiety, etc, and we must continue to erode negative attitudes towards those conditions. We must accept that when we are addressing an issue that has made us as mentally unhealthy we are doing so as if we had physical issues – caught a really bad flu, or broken a toe. We equally need to recognise the things that make our brains work well and cherish the activities and stuff around us that make us feel good, and function effectively.

There are schools of thought that mental health is a mesh of differetnt spectrums.. that we are all somewhat bipolar, or somewhat autistic, etc.. this of course may well be true but the inconsistency in approach and application, even amongst those that promote mental health in how it is communicated. Blurring the use of language between mental ill-health and its transition back to a more functional state is in my opinion, not in the least bit useful and at worst potentially damaging to the honourable intention of creating acceptance that not all brains work perfectly all the time.

The “broken” language certainly seems to be pervasive and worryingly institutionalised which makes the challenge even harder to address. I think its great that the Liberal Democrats have come out with a line on mental health in their manifesto (still undecided for this election for the record), but of course they are largely focussing on rehabilitation of mental ill-health despite the labels which would suggest that they are working in a preventative / wellbeing space.

My thoughts: ‘Mental health’ is a positive state and should be nurtured by individuals (and their employers), much in the same way that being in good physical shape is. Perhaps we should be looking to ‘de-stigmatise mental ill health’ and ‘end mental ill health discrimination’, at the same time as promoting positive choices and keeping your mind in as decent a state as you can your body. Andy talks about it on one of his blogs here, and who am I to disagree (this is my first blog in over four years and he actually writes on the subject).

What I can add is that as those of us who work in organisations with a focus on well-being, engagement, internal comms, corporate responsibility, etc, (you know… where we are largely in a pretty positive space…), are working towards a common goal. This goal is that folk are connected to the world around them, understand how to deal with annoyances, and appreciate the positive things around them. Lets just try and work towards using a common language that will help us achieve it.


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