Does the term “mental illness” bother anyone else as much as it bothers me?
As a treatment provider helping people to determine if they would like to discuss their “disability” with an employer, I have been in the uncomfortable situation of informing someone that their anxiety disorder, depression, PTSD or some other DSM diagnosis classes them as mentally ill. Their reactions to this are very mixed: some stare at me with blank expressions, some seemed resigned to the statement, and others get defensive. One person stated “just because I have anxiety disorder that does not mean that I have a ‘mental illness’ or a ‘disability’, it just means I get anxious and I, just like anyone else, have to deal with it but that doesn’t make me ill or disabled”.
I agree with my client, having anxiety doesn’t make her mentally ill or disabled. The problem is I have yet to find a solution to my wording problem. So this is where I need your help. If you could, what would you rename “mental illness”? Most major mental health organizations such as NAMI, The American Psychological Association, and Mental Health America refer to it as a “mental disorder” and/or “mental illness”.
Here are a few of the names I’ve tried out but still no luck in finding the perfect replacement:
Mental Health Issues – “Issues” is very non-specific which is why alot of people use the word but we all have issues, don’t we? Plus it sounds negative, I mean, who wants to be around someone with “issues”?
Mental Health Difficulties – Not terrible, living with a mental illness can be difficult but being difficult isn’t always a bad thing. Some of the best things in life are difficult, but I’m still not loving it.
Psychological Disorders – As per a suggestion from a colleague, I like it but “disorder” might seem to harsh or long term.
Emotional Issues– Again, that word “issue”, plus not all mental illnesses (i.e. schizophrenia) are about emotional dysfunction.
Psychological Conditions– So far, I think I like this one the most but I can’t solve this problem without hearing from you about how you like to refer to “mental illness”. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
So what would you choose? Take our poll and let us know. Don’t see an answer you like? Tell us what you want to rename mental illness in the comments section.
By Elizabeth Fouracre, LMSW
Laurel House Employment Specialist
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10 thoughts on “Renaming Mental Illness: Getting Your Feedback”
Mental Health Conditions
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue and asking us about how we use language to talk about mental illness. I prefer the terms “psychological condition” or “mental health condition” because they seem more hopeful since conditions can improve.
I agree that “psychological conditions” might be best in terms of a mild response during initial conversation. If pressed for a more specific definition, one might want to use the term “psychological challenges” (in keeping with the trend to define persons who have physical ailments to be defined as “physically challenged” rather than the traditional definition of “physically handicapped” .
Great post. I was often in this same situation working with clients. I like the first response mental health conditions.
Psychological condition is good. What about saying the individual has a “brain condition?” We hear all the time about a person’s heart condition etc. One could say a brain condition that presents itself as anxiety, for example. I feel it’s a bit wordy but does name the organ that is affected. Just a thought.
This post is a great way to get people thinking about the power of language and how our choice of words can guide our perceptions of people and consequently perpetuate stigma. I prefer “Mental Health Difficulties” as it is the least clinical sounding and “difficulties” seems less stigmatizing and pervasive as many people experience and overcome difficulties at different points in their lives. Unfortunately, the word “psychological” seems to have a negative connotation, most likely stemming from the offensive term “psycho,” so I am immediately turned off to the term “psychological condition.”
I have been reading over this post and ensuing comments, and realized that I really struggle with what is the most appropriate term. There are so many layers to any term that is used, and I don’t feel like any of them fully satisfies the intended use–because they inadequately describe what is happening, or because the untended consequence is present (as Janice explained with “psycho” stemming from psychological). I guess my best suggestion is that whenever possible, perhaps people should attempt to avoid generalizing and try to be as specific as possible–if someone is living with depression, state that the person is living with depression. Why are we avoiding the term? Granted, there are some people who are uncomfortable talking about the condition they are living it, in which case, a frank conversation should be had about what they individually prefer. The generalization depersonalizes individuals living with (depression, for example), which I have a hard time believing is helpful (at best) to their recovery.
I have four different comments. Please read and keep scrolling through to the bottom.
1. (I have one confirmed Psychological Condition and possibly two others). Um. Okay, so, the article is great, very thought-provoking. The comments are great too, adding to the discussion. The issue of having a limited vocabulary to choose from is something I have been thinking about since my diagnosis two years ago (it is August 2020 now). The only issue with the article, comments, all of it is that none of you are specifically asking for the opinions of those with Psychological Conditions. Maybe one of you has one or more yourself, but you are not saying it. You are free to not say it, especially since some of you include first and last names so maybe your jobs, careers or social lives would be in jeopardy. However, coming forward is great for exposure and inclusion, and you can always answer anonymously. It looks as though I am alone here. In the case that is true, it is a problem.
I like the article, article writer, and commenters so please believe me when I say I am trying hard not to rage (at any of you) here.
If you are going to talk about someone or a group of people, it is at the very least polite to go to them FIRST and include them. It is at the most, completely necessary to go to that person or group FIRST and include them in the discussion. We live through this. You just watch, ask questions, and poke us with sticks(ok that was rude but I’m a little ticked off right now and not exactly apologizing moving on).
If a family member or a friend or anybody for that matter wished to discuss what was going on with an individual or a group of people, they are free to do so as there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is when people get together to make decisions for and about other people without going to those people in question FIRST and including them in the decision-making process. The problem is made worse when the people in talks have full authority to severely change that person’s life. I am talking about the difference between a family member deciding to put another family member away in a mental hospital. In that case, doctors and psychologists may intervene and they may decide the person in question is actually mentally fit to function in day-to-day life and not a danger to themselves or others. Maybe the police intervene and arrest the people who put them in there. VS. The government decides that anybody who scores high on some mandatory psychological test must be rounded up, put away indefinitely, no questions asked. There is a canyon of difference between the two situations.
There must also be a distinction made between discussing the effects of say, ableism vs. the effects of what the other person is emotionally/mentally/psychologically/neurologically going through. If you are discussing the effects of ableism, well, that can be charted, logged, seen, heard, watched, and read about and easily understood. Ableism is abuse, it’s horrible, yeah, everyone gets it, easy as 1, 2, 3. The effects of what the other person is going through is only, ONLY (holy frickfrack I cannot emphasize the word “ONLY” enough!!!) understood when speaking with the very people who go through it. This is another reason to include us. You want to understand us? Then talk with us, not to us, not at us, and definitely absolutely not withOUT us. Not including us is one of the reasons why many of us do not trust psychologists or psychiatrists. Many of us have also come across a textbook or online so-called ‘definition’ and laughed because it was so ridiculous while simultaneously being in a rage because it is clear to people who have ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is, that the author never spoke to multiple people with ‘it’. Moreover, if you speak with one of us, then you have only spoken with ONE of us. We all have different experiences. The way one person describes their Bipolar will not be the same way someone else describes theirs.
Empathy is understanding what is happening because you have gone through it or are going through it yourself. No two situations are exactly the same of course, but you get darn close enough to understand where the other person is coming from and to predict where they are going.
Sympathy is what you lot got. It is trying to understand. It is using your compassion and even remotely similar past or current experiences to try to understand.
This is why it is vital for those of us who live with Mental Conditions to find each other. It is vital for us to find what specific group(s) we belong to and find those people. It is vital for YOU to understand that you do not and will not ever come to a complete understanding of us just by writing or reading a textbook or peer-reviewed research paper.
You have an obligation to try to understand us to the best of your mental and emotional abilities. It takes work, but hey, you picked this job/career. Quite frankly, we also need you since (most of us do) we like knowing what is going on with us, and medication can help some people, and governments don’t listen to anyone/anything unless it comes in an easily digestible format (we also don’t need everyone to be medicated, we don’t need ‘medication nations’, and there’s other grey areas to how much power you should have, but I digress).
The same way:
straight people do not get to decide if they should be able to use the word f*g or other words,
men do not get to decide if they should be able to use b***h or w***e or other words,
non-Black people but especially white people do not get to decide if they should be able to use n****r or other words,
those who do not have a Physical Challenge/Physical Accessibility Issue/Physical Condition do not get to decide if they should be able to use the word c*****e or other words.
Maybe all of you researchers, psychologists, doctors, experimenters, counsellors, psychiatrists, therapists, clinical psychologists, and professors only want to ask each other. Maybe you want hypothesize amongst yourselves. Maybe you don’t want to be ‘bogged down’ or ‘held up’ by things like manners, respect, experience or reality when talking about us. This is still bad, and you are still not allowed to do this. It would be like all male government and medical personnel (in whatever country, it doesn’t matter) getting together to talk about abortion rights without going to women first, without including women or telling them about this meetup, or with barring women from joining the discussion at all. (Pro tip: in this hypothetical scenario and separate from what I’m talking about, any and every woman should be invited to the discussion. The men are not needed. Literally, it all directly affects women. The men are only indirectly affected.)
Therefore, unless you have a Psychological Condition, it does not matter in what capacity you work in Psychology. It does not matter what kind of or how many Neurodivergent people you have worked with. Whether you are a Clinical Psychologist, Psychiatrist, Counsellor, Therapist, a family member, friend or lover, etc., anything, it. Does. Not. Matter. The decision(s) is not yours. The decision(s) is ours.
Please, and I say this in the kindest tone possible, please get off your high horses. Don’t you dare make the decision on what to refer to us as or any other decision concerning us without even coming to us first.
2. Thank you! There does need to be a name change! I have severe OCD, and possible OCPD. I also don’t know if this is something neurological, emotional or what since covid has cut my supports and resources down by half, but I might have SPS (Sensory Processing Sensitivity, it also seems to be called OE, which is OverExcitability). *- This next bit is a personal interpretation. -* To me, the words and phrases mental illness/mental sickness, mental disorder, psychological problems, mental or emotional disability/instability make me sound like a disease. For example, OCD is called “the doubting disease”. That’s awful. It makes me sound like I am contagious, that there is something wrong with me, and that I am bad. It makes me feel gross and disgusting. None of what is going on with me makes me bad, wrong, sick or something that needs to be cured, as if I myself must be expunged from this Earth like a deadly pathogen. I am fine. I am good.
3. I like what Gregg said about being specific and I agree that generalizing it depersonalizes the person in question. However, I myself do see the sense in generalizing what it is sometimes for the sake of protecting privacy, for seeking some sort of aid such as financial aid where the details are unnecessary or to just avoid getting into a long discussion about it. The first one may one day not be a concern because every day will be Mental Health Awareness Day Utopia free of stigma and the last two the only things someone has to worry about when deciding between generalizing or being specific, but that day is not now. To me, constantly referring to someone by one of these terms or phrases is depersonalizing, yes. Referring to it that way when you don’t have time or don’t want to go into detail is fine by me. Again, that’s me.
4. This is what I personally like. (Also, besides for myself and people like me, these words are for the rest of the population. This is similar to marketing – in marketing you need to have a name for the product that rolls of the tongue, appealing packing, and pick the right colours and other words. The words need to roll of the tongue if we (those who live this) want to be accepted even slightly more by the rest of the population. “Mental Illness” is easy and quick to say. Words like “Crazy” are even quicker and easier to say, but are horribly insulting.
*- from the vote (it won’t count my vote, it keeps coming up with ‘Invalid data 1’ even if I allow cookies) -*
Mental Health Difficulties – Yeah. Okay, I can get with this one. I have difficulties, I struggle. Unfortunately, it is a mouthful.
Emotional Issues – Mmmmmmmno. I personally don’t like the “Issues” part. For me, it’s the same with “Mental Issues”. I think it would be the same with “Physical Issues” for many people.
Psychological Condition – Yes! This is good! I do have a psychological condition.
Mental Health Condition – A mouthful, but the “Condition” part to me is good.
*- from the comments -*
Psychological Challenge – This is a really good one too. I tried out “Mental Challenge” in my head and realized how it sounded as being “Mentally Challenged”. That would be a problem as this is far different from Autism, Down Syndrome, or Asperger’s Syndrome.
Brain Condition – This is a good one, not wordy at all. I like the word here, “Condition”. It also works for me considering OCD, OCPD, and SPS (or OE) are neurological.
*- My own -*
Emotional Condition – yes, trauma, yes.
Emotional Challenge – maybe?
Neurological Condition – this is accurate, I like it a lot, but it is a mouthful.
Mental Accessibility Issue – now that’s wordy. I’ve been using this one since my diagnosis, which was a year ago, but I have been wanting to find a different one because of how much of a mouthful it is to say.
Neurodivergent – (I can’t believe someone hasn’t mentioned this word already. It’s been around since the 1990s, the article writer works in psychology, and those who have commented seem to as well.) I love this word! I love the Neurodiversity Paradigm! The Neurodiversity Movement may be shades of grey and complicated, but it fortunately does place emphasis on acknowledgement and inclusion!
*- My vote! -*
I like Neurodivergent, Brain Condition or Neurological Condition if I want to generalize. I like Psychological Condition if I want to be specific away from things like Dyslexia, Epilepsy or Autism. I like Emotional Condition to refer to my trauma.
Thank you for reading the blog and for your very thoughtful, in-depth comments.
And thank you for voting in our poll! I agree with all your choices for acceptable, non-stigmatizing language.
I refer to my child as having a chemical deficiency, in the same way you might have a vitamin deficiency. He needs medication to make up for what his body is lacking or cannot make itself.