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“A shared language does not imply a shared viewpoint but allows for a certain kind of conversation.”
This idea, gleaned from an article in the New Yorker by John Lancaster about the language of finance, clarified something I have been struggling with for years in the Painted Brain project. Why do I feel it is so important to use the words “mental illness” when talking about our project, our mission, and our purpose? Mental illness, as a term, bugs a lot of people. There’s a concern that it will scare people away or create a barrier for people living with mental health symptoms who don’t consider the term mentally ill applicable to them. So why do I keep insisting on using these words? Well, Mr. Lancaster clarified it for me, it’s because we need to be in the conversation with people that use this word as a label, a category, or even as an insult. If we don’t use the same language, we’re not in the same conversation.
Like it or not, the media, the medical establishment, and the government will continue to use the term mental illness to describe the many millions of people who experience significant mental health symptoms. They use it to describe those that need help, or government support, or who create mayhem. The words that technically describe any person living with psychiatric symptoms become, in society, synonymous with the negative. We are so much more than that, and we need to demonstrate it.
To really challenge the status quo is to speak to power. The powers-that-be use mental illness in the pejorative. Mental illness is like any other illness. It’s not a moral judgment, and not a weakness. As confusing as it seems, it is not an “illness” in the way that people mean “illness” when they use the words “mental illness.” It’s just a set of symptoms, as it is for other illnesses. They don’t use cancer patient in the pejorative. They don’t use AIDS patient in the pejorative, though that took a fight. Let’s get in that fight, and use the language that it takes to join this fight.
Dave Leon is the founder/director of The Painted Brain.