Tuesday, January 15, 2008

TO WRITE: The Term "Mental Illness"

Many of us -- whether we live with depression, bipolar disorder or another psychological condition -- have strong feelings about being labeled "mentally ill." Personally, I'm OK with it at this point, twenty-plus years into my bipolar disorder. But there was a time when that term made me very defensive and conjured up images of complete non-functioning. Fortunately, most of us do function to some degree most of the time, yet this descriptor is often used, particularly by those in the medical fields, I find.

As one trained as a biologist, I think I may actually prefer being "mentally ill" because it indicates that my condition is physiological as well as psychological. That doesn't mean I'm excused from the hard work of striving for recovery, but it helps remind me that it's not all my "fault."

One member of my writing group at Stanford prefers that we discuss our "mental health" rather than our "mental illness," and I think this can be very helpful too, because it is so much more positive -- and because it is more inclusive of those suffering, for example, from a depression that is situational, but not clinical.

Play with this. . .
Have you ever had the term "mentally ill" used to describe you? How have you felt about it? If you bristle at it, do you have another suggestion? And how important do you think this language is in perpetuating or countering stigma?

I'm curious about what you come up with -- leave a comment if you like. And consider whether it might be helpful to discuss with your loved ones or doctor the language used about your health.


Greg said...

I feel comfortable with the term mental illnes. I also prefer it to mood disorder, which sounds to me like a grumpy state of mind. Illnes connotes a stronger feeling of a biological based disorder which is what I experience rather than something that needs a little 'cheering up' to resove.

Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Greg. I had never thought of "mood disorder" as implying mere grumpiness, but I can see your point. We definitely don't want to condone that sort of interpretation! We need people to somehow understand that we're dealing with very serious conditions here.