Why we should change the language around mental health

By | May 6, 2019
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK.

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

Hearing that someone committed suicide doesn’t accurately report what happened to that person.

The phrase “committed suicide” insinuates that someone had a choice in how they died. That this person made that decision. When, in fact, they were the victim of a disease that had beholden their brain and possibly body.

This sentiment is along the same lines of thinking about mental ill health like a cancer or heart disease.

No one tells someone who has broken their leg to “just get over it”.

No one tells someone diagnosed with lung cancer that “it’s just a phase”.

Yet she suffered, significantly, under the burden of mental illness. And one day, it killed her. The disease killed her. It was not a choice she made.

Grace Ryan.

We should not be treating people with mental illness with blase advice or judging stigma.

Similarly, this is the same for people who have lost someone who has “committed suicide”.

There is a stigma to those who have lived through it, who have lost a family member or friend to the horrific set of events driven by this awful disease.

I’ve lived through it – a couple of times now – but the most horrific was almost 10 years ago when my best friend took her own life.

My best friend, though, was beautiful, smart, charismatic and everyone’s best mate. In all the years we knew each other, I never met anyone who didn’t like her.

Yet she suffered, significantly, under the burden of mental illness. And one day, it killed her. The disease killed her. It was not a choice she made.

If this triggers anything for you please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Speak about it, but be mindful

Mental illness is rife in today’s society and yet there is still a stigma around the conditions that fall under the mental illness umbrella.

Experts are educating people throughout NSW on speaking about mental illness and suicide.

Whole communities in the Western Local Area Health District are impacted by the tragedy of suicide.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, 31 people were recorded as death by suicide with 138 admitted to local hospitals for intentional self harm.

There are strict guidelines around the media’s portrayal of mental illness, but these guidelines are yet to reach everyday conversation.

Rural mental health coordinator at the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP) Camilla Kenny said there were programs and first aid courses that educate people on the correct language around mental health.

“We encourage the respectful use of language when discussing mental illness and suicide, ensuring we are respectful to those who have experienced suicide in some form in the past,” Ms Kenny said.

Many people still believe that talking about suicide can be harmful or dangerous. However, opening up these conversations in a caring, respectful way can be incredibly supportive and encourage someone to open up and seek help.

Camilla Kenny, Rural Adversity Mental Health Program, Mental Health Coordinator.

“We tend not to use the phrase ‘committed suicide’ as it is linked to committing a crime or a sin which is traditionally seen as ‘bad’ or evil.

“This imposes judgement and doesn’t take into account the experience of the person,” she said.

Discussing the details around someone’s suicide “doesn’t have any educational significance in training and can actually retraumatise or trigger those who may have had prior experience”, Ms Kenny said.

However, this does not mean it’s a topic that should be thrown in the too-hard basket.

“Many people still believe that talking about suicide can be harmful or dangerous. However, opening up these conversations in a caring, respectful way can be incredibly supportive and encourage someone to open up and seek help,” Ms Kenny said.

Understanding more about the medical condition and the correct terms for mental health and mental illness is important in breaking down the stigma barriers surrounding mental illness.

“We now talk about the ‘mental health continuum’. This is the ‘spectrum’ from mental health and wellbeing (a healthy, positive state) through to mental illness (a diagnosable illness or health concern),” Ms Kenny said.

“It is important that we separate these terms, and help people to understand the difference.”

Every discussion requires need for great sensitivity

ALL discussions around suicide require sensitivity, according to headspace Orange and Dubbo’s clinical lead Leigh Underwood.

Ms Underwood said research showed the need to be mindful of the language used to discuss the difficult topic.

“There has been a lot of research on the reporting of suicide and its influence on increasing instances of suicide so it’s really important that if you do report on it, you need to do so with forethought and sensitivity,” Ms Underwood said.

Despite any guidelines, still respect each individual’s preference for how they wish to refer to their own mental status,

Leigh Underwood, headspace

Even discussing mental illness among friends should be done so with sensitivity. Ms Underwood advises people choose their words carefully when talking about the topic.

“Despite any guidelines, still respect each individual’s preference for how they wish to refer to their own mental status,” Ms Underwood said, quoting David Susman from How to Talk about Mental Health.

There to help

A number of agencies are available to provide support for people with mental illness.

They include:

  • beyondblue: For depression and anxiety. Phone 1300 224 636
  • headspace: Help for people between 12 and 25 and families. Phone 1800 650 890
  • Lifeline: A 24-hour crisis counselling, support groups and suicide prevention services. Phone 13 11 14
  • SANE Australia: Provides help for those with a mental illness to lead a better life. Phone 1800 187 263
  • Suicide Call Back Service: Provides 24/7 support those who are suicidal. Phone 1300 659 467

Source: healthdirect.gov.au

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Western Advocate – Health