Language is important. The words we use carry meaning. Word choice matters.
If the goal of the public conversation about “mental health” is to reduce stigma associated with mental health issues, then we need to change the language we use to talk about them.
The language we use to describe conditions like anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, PTSD and other “mental health” conditions work against our goal of eliminating the stigma of these conditions.
In Part 1, I shared the problem with the term “mental health” itself. I also explained how we create our identity in these conditions through the language of ownership we use. That identity keeps us stuck in the thought, emotion, and behavior patterns that we label as mental illness, disease or disorder.
Today I want to tackle the big label: illness, disease, and disorder. This is a touchy one. One one hand, these labels do serve the end goal of helping those with mental health conditions receive treatment. On the other hand, they can strip us of our agency to create change in our lives.
In full transparency, I write this from the perspective of not being resolved on this issue. Even as I struggle with ADHD, I have a high degree of resistance to being labeled as a someone with a disorder. I don’t want to be a victim of a condition.
Yet there are times that I find myself wondering if perhaps I must surrender to certain aspects of this condition, in order to learn to work with it.
Sometimes I find myself walking a tightrope, this narrow sliver of a line where I can acknowledge my condition and work with it, while not falling victim to the illusion that it controls my actions or my fate. Like any tightrope, it’s easy to fall off.
How the Language of Illness Serves
Puts Mental Health on Equal Level as Physical Health
The historical silence and shame around mental health conditions has created a culture where many people view mental health conditions through a different lens than a more tangible physical disease.
If you struggle to get up and go to work because you have cancer, people understand. If your struggle stems from a bout of depression, people think you’re lazy. We give our compassion to people with cancer; we tell people with mental health issues to “pull yourself out of it” and “get it together.”
The energetic toll of a severe period of depression or burnout can be just as debilitating as that caused by an infectious disease, and it often manifests as tangible physical ailments, but we draw distinctions and create judgments.
In a culture where the focus of health care is on “curing disease” (rather than on preventing disease — but that’s a topic for another time), giving mental health conditions the status of “illness” elevates them to an even playing field with physical illness and can open the door for people who are suffering to receive treatment.
As Michelle Obama said,
Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg, or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.
Health is health.
Removes Blame & Shame
Labeling these conditions as an “illnesses” or “disorders” can also help those afflicted release their identification with the condition and the blame and shame that often accompany it: if anxiety and depression are an illness, they aren’t you. And if they are illnesses, then what you experience is not your “fault.”
If the “illness” label helps remove the shame and opens the door for people to seek help, then that’s great.
But there’s another side to this.
The Illness Label is Disempowering
Creates a Victim Mindset
When we cast our mental health issues as an illness, disease, or disorder, we set ourselves up as victims of an external force. The condition becomes an easy scapegoat for the actions we regret.
When we assign responsibility to the outside factors, we deny our agency to do anything about it.
This plays out well for the pharmaceutical companies who want to sell more drugs to counter the effects of these conditions.
People who have a disorder are treated as “other,” separated from the general population. Disease and illnesses are conditions we try to remove from life. They are not part of life.
In effect, when we talk about mental health conditions as illnesses and disorders, we imply that something is wrong with the person afflicted.
This language creates the very stigmas that we are trying to avoid.
Creates the Illusion of a Cure
Calling something an illness sets up an expectation of a cure. But these conditions often don’t have cures.
And even if they did, I’m not sure I’d go for it. I struggle a lot with ADHD and the concurrent anxiety that often accompanies it. But ADHD comes with gifts, and I don’t want to give those up.
Instead of viewing this as a disorder to be fixed or an illness to be cured, I prefer to see it as a set of patterns that I can learn to live with.
Fosters the Myth That We Need to Be Fixed
When we label someone as having as a disorder, a disease, or an illness, we imply that the person needs to be “fixed.”
For many people, this leads to the belief that there is something wrong with us.
When one out of four people experiences mental health issues, can we really call them disorders?
Who defines what’s “normal” anyway?
What if the only thing wrong with you is the belief that there’s something wrong with you?