Words and mental health: In order to break stigmas do we have to change our vocabulary?

“You’re so mental.” “You went mad mate.” Words, they’re a tricky thing. There’s the old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words cannot hurt me.”

With most things I’m pretty good at not being overly sensitive – say what you like about my appearance, my views, my personality, even my family – 9 times out of 10 I’ll either appreciate it’s a joke and give it straight back to you, or (if you’re being serious) ignore it. However, my mental health isn’t so straightforward…

8 out of 10 times my friends and I are able to joke about it – not to diminish our experiences, because to be honest it actually helps us talk about it and feel less like there’s an elephant in the room. And yet, sometimes, the most passing comment can completely head wobble me for the day.

For instance, I stayed at my boyfriend’s the other night.

– quick(ish) bit of context, a really weird part of my anxiety is that I sometimes get majorly stressed out when I have to leave a place/change setting – seriously it’ll be the end of a weekend being at home and I get so freaked out. It’s not because I don’t want to leave, in fact when I know I’m leaving a place, I go into a frenzy and feel like I have to leave instantly, start doing work, and end up getting myself into a hot mess. However, I’ll add, it’s not like every single time I leave a friend’s house or go to the dentists I lose it. But yes, it does happen. 

– anyway, my boyfriend is aware of my quirk.

So, I wake up the next day knowing I had to go back to mine and do work, and while he was making a coffee I instantly jumped out of bed, threw on my clothes and was basically darting out of the door before he’d come back in. In my head, I had leave there and then, work for the next 11 hours, and if I didn’t leave immediately, I was a failure and my life would be over (top class crazy behaviour I know). I do think being a workaholic also doesn’t help ease the situation.

As I’m flying out of the door, bless him, my boyfriend realises I am clearly having a wobble. He gets me back into bed to relax and I decide I’ll leave in a bit to do some work as I can always see him later. After ten minutes or so, I can’t help myself, I start doing some work, and he makes a comment like: “I hate it when we work together”, so I said: “well yeah but in the real-world couples have to do this.” He then, without even thinking says: “in the real-world people don’t get upset about leaving for a few hours.” 

I was so thrown, I ended up leaving. It wasn’t because I was particularly angry at him, he only made a passing remark, he didn’t say it to upset me. I have definitely said far worse when joking around and in arguments! After I left, he immediately called to say it was a stupid comment, and obviously, he did not think that about me – he later turned up at my house with a block of brie, because “flowers would be cheesy” and cooked me dinner.

To be honest, I reacted how I did, because I felt really embarrassed and stupid. I asked myself: is that how he sees me? Am I just pathetic? Or was I just being too sensitive about a comment that clearly didn’t mean anything? Or was he not being considerate enough about my issues, and without thinking, being really harsh with his words?

Anyway, it got me thinking about words and their meanings. Particularly in the wake of Kleenex gate – I needn’t delve into this as I’m sure all of your social medias have been on fire with comments about it in the last week. As I ventured down the rabbit-hole, I came to a question. In order for stigmas to break down, along with pumping money into services, campaigns, and education, so that people from a young age know about what mental health is, and that its ok to talk about it, do we need to change our vocabulary as well?

Indeed, when I recently went to a consent training workshop, our VP Welfare said that when discussing the scenarios, we could not say words like “slut” or “slag”, even in a ‘banter’ context as some people may take offence, and everyone nodded in agreement. Of course, in this day and age, you can’t comment on a person’s sexual history in a degrading manner – even if you just think it’s a joke. Just like you can’t do so in relation to a person’s race, religion, class, gender, sexuality, and so on. Slurs are not seen as funny, they upset people, reinforce prejudices, and stop society’s from moving forward. 

So, how does mental health come into this?

Do we have to stop saying trigger words like, crazy, mental, insane, or psycho, when talking about people’s behaviour, weird scenarios, and events? You and your mates might only be joking, and obviously not being serious about the connotations of these words, when talking about someone, but your comments would negatively affect that person, especially if they have a mental health problem, if they heard you say it. On the other hand, does this mean sports commentators can’t say “that was an insane goal”, or political journalists can’t say a tyrant is acting “like a lunatic”? In my opinion, it’s a very grey area, it is completely situational.

Like I said, my friends and I make comments about each other being totally bonkers all the time, but I would never say these things to a stranger, or in an argument with a friend/partner/colleague/family, or on a public platform/space. Although my friends and I are joking, and it helps us, we could trigger and upset someone who doesn’t feel the same. It is the same with ‘slut shaming’, I know I’m not alone in my female friend group when I say we talk about each other’s ‘slutty phase’ or say stuff like ‘you acted like a bit of a slag last night’. However, I would never call a girl, who I’m not close with, one, because she may think I’m being serious, or she have been in a very traumatic situation, like rape, and feel victim shamed.

So, words, they have power. I’m not saying we have to live in a thought police, ultra-extreme PC society, however, when you say things consider the situation.

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