Mental health terminologies

The mental health movement, globally, is gaining momentum; with more and more people realising the power of mental health for our wellbeing. Amid the growing campaigns, the policy changes, representation in media; it is the power of the ‘discourse’ that holds the potential to subvert the way we look at the world.
Language shapes the way we look at the world. It can reinforce the prejudices and biases we inherit as a part of our social conditioning, or pave the way for alternative means to envision a safe space for all.

It is time to take a step back and reclaim the language we use to make it inclusive, sensitive, and respectful of the multifarious experiences around.

The word ‘committed’ is often associated with crime or any reprehensible act, hence laden with blame and stigma. Reserving the term ‘committed’ for deaths by suicide and not for any physical illness reflects our refusal to acknowledge the pain and the suffering of the individual. It leaves no possibility for an unaddressed mental health concern as well as the larger systemic factors that compel an individual to resort to such extreme measures.

When it comes to mental health, there is no standard guideline/criterion to define what is “normal”. Excessive reliance on normative categories to understand behaviour creates unnecessary binaries and generalisations. Human behaviour is diverse, unique, and contingent on various contextual factors. Therefore, being mindful of the terms used to delineate behaviour is an important step towards de-stigmatising mental health and illness. Using “typical” or “usual” behaviour in lieu of ‘normal’ makes way for the identification of concerns, without losing sight of the diversity of our responses.

Any diagnostic criterion or label (like schizophrenia, depression, etc) refers to an aspect of one’s personality. Our personal and social narratives are much more and beyond the labels we use to define ourselves. Therefore, the use of the first-person language, like- “living with schizophrenia”, instead of “schizophrenic” allows one to identify and respect the various facets that define our existence.

In 2013, the fifth version of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V)*, replaced the term ‘mental retardation’ with intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) because of the negative connotations attached with the word ‘retardation’. The change also symbolises a shift in the attitude from viewing intellectual disability as a developmental disorder marked by difficulties in intellectual and adaptive functioning, and not a ‘deficit’ or ‘lack’.

Contrary to popular beliefs and ideas, mental health concerns are neither fabricated nor just a matter of happiness and sadness. They are diverse, complex, and more common than we would like to believe. For example, Depression is a clinical term, with significant changes in mood, behaviour, feelings, accompanied by physical and neurological changes that require medical intervention. The use of antidepressants is one of the various approaches aimed at long term symptoms alleviation. It is not a mere “quick fix” for temporary relief.

Using the term super utilizers to refer to individuals who have complex social and support needs (for example- autistic spectrum disorders), comes at the cost of being negligent to the uniqueness and diversity all around. Initiating dialogues around mental health concerns requires a more holistic, macroscopic vision that can recognise how our well being is shared and inter-dependent. Recognition of the distinct mental health needs grants autonomy to the individual, unburdening them from shame/guilt when asking for support and services they need.

*DSM- The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual refers to the handbook used by health care professionals as a guide to the diagnosis of mental health disorders.