I try to make a point of referring to myself as a mental “illness” advocate and not a mental “health” advocate. Why? The reasons are varied, but the literal truth is that I advocate for those who suffer from serious mental illness and who cannot advocate for themselves. The rest of us who enjoy reasonably good mental health, and as highly functioning individuals, we know how to seek professional help when or if we have a set-back or psychological issue we cannot resolve on our own.
We could all use a little better mental health, in the same way that almost all of us could lose a few pounds and achieve improved physical health. But the mental health community is sometimes guilty of sanitizing the realities of those who are gravely ill. Of course, I know why they do it. There is still so much stigma attached to the words mental illness, that it sounds much less threatening to speak of mental “health” instead. Add to that, the fact that we live in strange times, where language is being manipulated by the general public for political reasons, and so we now have a recipe for staying in complete denial about what is really going on.
Should we continue to call them “mental healthcare” providers? Or would it be more authentic to call them “mental illness care” providers? Should we refer to a psychiatric facility as a “behavioral health” center? Or would it be more honest to acknowledge that psychiatry addresses brain disorders and not behavioral disorders?
Right around the time my own son became seriously mentally ill, the mental healthcare agencies decided to call him a “peer” instead of a patient. Whose peer? (Hint: someone else who is mentally ill). Perhaps I am making much ado about nothing, but the euphemisms for mental illness do not seem to have made much difference for those suffering from Anosognosia, which is a medical term for lack of insight into one’s own illness. Noted, that a person with mental illness should not be defined by their illness 100% of the time. For example, I make a point of referring to those living in a group home as “residents” when that is the context of the conversation. But when they are visiting their psychiatrist, they are a patient.
I just wonder, if we are trying to help a person, how it can be beneficial to dance around the diagnosis. If we want our loved one to get treatment so they can get better, (and have a better grasp on reality) do we really serve them best by not addressing the root cause of their suffering? Similarly, does it help an ex-convict learn their lesson if we call them “justice-involved” instead of a felon? I do believe there is a time and place for exceptions to the rules and treating each person’s case individually. But the many euphemisms in use feel dishonest to me, and yet I am the last person who would want my son to feel stigmatized.
Kartar Diamond is a Mental Illness Advocate and author of Noah’s Schizophrenia: A Mother’s Search for Truth