I am a huge proponent of erasing the stigmas associated with mental illness. Lord knows, I deal with three of them on an almost constant basis— PTSD, GAD and MDD. And I am glad for the strides society has made in being aware of mental illnesses and treating them as seriously as they deserve.
But there’s one thing that’s still pissing me off.
Journalists and other media personnel insist on keeping mental illness as an abstract noun by saying things like, “He suffered from mental illness,” and these abstractions lead to negative stereotypes.
A journal article by John Coverdale, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (2002) revealed the following findings:
After cutting all articles regarding mental health or illness over a four week period, out of 562 articles, 61.3% related mental illness to “danger to others” and 47.3% connected mental illness to “criminality.” Positive associations of mental illness only occurred in 27% of the articles.
Finally, 47% of the articles used the phrase “mental illness” as a generic term, failing to identify the specific illness.
This generic phrase needs to be eliminated.
You see, if I’m sick and you ask me if I’m feeling ok, I would never think to respond, “Not really. You see, I’m suffering from a physical illness,” and if I did, it would sound dramatic if all I was dealing with was the common cold.
When you’ve been off work sick for a few days and people ask, “What was wrong?” They don’t want a generic answer. They want to know— was it strep? The flu? Bronchitis? Were you throwing up? How bad was it? And no one feels ashamed to say what, specifically, was wrong.
So why the ambiguous “mental illness”?
And I’m not real comfortable with the “suffering from” phrase either. To me, that gives the illness power over the individual. Like you’re at the mercy of your illness and thus “suffer” from it.
Anyone who has a mental illness diagnosis understands that you aren’t always “suffering.” Sometimes you are dealing with it, sometimes you are living with it, sometimes you are suffocated by it, but you’re still here, so you are definitely not a victim of it.
I “have” mental illness sounds off as well. I don’t possess it, but it sometimes feels like it possesses me. It’s not necessarily a descriptor (at least I don’t like to think it is) like I “have” blue eyes.
So my preferred verb is “deal” in the present progressive tense— “I am dealing with mental illness.” Or, for my post partum depression, the past perfect tense seems most accurate— “I have dealt with PPD.”
Let’s not be scared to actually name what it is people are dealing with. I am dealing with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If we are really going to embrace mental illness as a real issue, then we ought to be concrete and eliminate the guesswork.
“He suffered from mental illness” reveals nothing, and only evokes extreme images of someone who is out of control and dangerous to those who don’t understand the intricacies.
Call it what it is, so that people may learn more, stigmas may be blurred and those dealing with them may be understood.
People fear what they don’t know or understand.
So let people know.