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10th October 2013

Mind your language – World Mental Health Day

Thursday 10th October is World Mental Health day, a chance to promote awareness about mental health and combat stigma and it might also be a good time to think about the language we use about mental health, particularly in the light of recent events. You will have heard the controversy caused by Tesco’s launch of a ‘psycho ward costume’ for Halloween, thankfully now removed from sale with apologies.  I think most people’s view at the time was ‘what on earth were they thinking of?’ to come up with something so obviously offensive. A headline in the Sun this week declared ‘1,200 killed by mental patients’. Now we know the tabloids like to use shocking headlines to sell papers, but messages like that are very damaging to people seeking support or treatment.

Sometimes people use language about mental health without thinking about how inappropriate or unhelpful it might be. One of the things about language is that our use of terminology changes over time. Consider some of the official language used in mental health laws in the past:

  • Madhouses Act 1774
  • Criminal Lunatics Act 1800
  • The Lunatics Act 1845

and some of the words used in laws about learning disability :

  • The Idiots Act 1886
  • The Mental Deficiency Act 1913

So you can see our use of language a hundred years ago or more is unacceptable today. However terms that are in common use today are still the subject of debate. When I’ve delivered training sessions on mental health awareness, participants question why there is no agreed common terminology. The term mental illness is widely used, but some people do not accept a medical or biological model where mental health problems are regarded as illness. Some users of mental health services prefer the use of terms like ‘mental health problems’ or the even more neutral ‘mental health issues’. The legal language used in the Mental Health Act talks about ‘mental disorder’.

So it can be difficult for non-mental health professionals to keep up to date with current debates about the best words to describe mental health. However there is a big difference between being unsure about what words to use on the one hand, and being deliberately or thoughtlessly offensive on the other. If you’ve got mental health problems, or if you did have mental health problems, how would you like to be viewed, and how would you like your mental health to be described? That’s probably a reasonable guide to thinking about the language we use.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Topics: Mental Health

David Beckingham

Mental Health Specialist

David Beckingham is a self-employed independent trainer, and is also an honorary lecturer with the University of Cumbria. His professional background is as a social worker and he has worked in care homes for older people in Cumbria. David’s main area of expertise is in mental health. Prior to becoming self-employed he was a Staff Development and Training Officer with Cumbria County Council, both commissioning and delivering training to mental health workers and others in statutory and independent sector organisations. Read more

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