“It doesn’t matter, we all know what we’re getting at”, I see strangers say online as they discuss the difference between mental health and mental ill health, and the way we speak about it on social media.
I see people say that discussing mental health terms correctly isn’t an issue, because it’s all one and the same — but it’s not. Language around mental illness matters.
It matters because mental health and mental ill health are not the same thing.
We all have mental health, good and bad. We all experience different thoughts and feelings and emotions. But it’s different for people who are mentally ill. Who experience intrusive thoughts and anxiety and panic attacks and intense emotions and dissociation. Who experience dark thoughts and suicidal ideation and low mood. Who experience elated mood and mania and psychosis. It is different for people with mental illness.
Language around mental illness matters because it’s about respect and understanding. It’s 2021, but still we are not properly educated on mental ill health, and I think that is partly down to the way we talk about it.
We need to individualise conditions because they are all different and all affect people who are mentally ill uniquely.
I have bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, postnatal depression, and borderline personality disorder. That’s a lot of labels and not ones that I define myself by — because for me (and this doesn’t go for anyone else who experiences it differently), my mental illnesses are a part of what makes me me — they are not all that I have to offer.
But it still pains me when I see awareness days and hashtags (like the most recent one), talking about mental health issues as if they’re all the same thing. What does Mental Health Awareness Week really mean? Does it mean awareness for people with mental health issues, or does it mean awareness around general mental health? It is not clear, and therefore is difficult to want to fully participate when you’re not sure whether something is actually for you.
Mental health does matter, of course it does — but it’s something we are all aware of. But when it comes to complex mental health conditions, I feel many are too scared to talk about them or even to open up out of fear of misunderstanding or negative responses.
But we can’t be fully aware until we’re talking about all conditions.
Language around mental health issues matters because mental illness matters. It matters as a separate conversation to mental wellbeing. It destroys lives and affects people not just emotionally or mentally, but physically and financially, too. Mental illness kills. That’s why it’s so important to distinguish it from mental wellness and self-care.
The latter is important, but it’s okay to have two separate conversations without lumping it all into one hashtag. It’s a good thing to have two conversations because it educates people and raises awareness of what mental illness is really like.
The conversation around mental health and mental illness cannot change until the dialogue opens up beyond self-care and wellness.
We can make a start by separating mental health and mental illness, to encourage people to talk about lived experience rather than self-care and wellness.
But we as a community can not make all change — change needs to come from the government, because the mental health services need more funding. This is something that we talk about every mental health awareness day, week, or month — people with lived experience discuss how they’ve been continuously let down or left in the dark.
These are the experiences that we need to be sharing, to highlight how damaging being left without access to help is.
I’m all for self-care and wellness, but I think that for the sake of people living with diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health conditions, the focus needs to be on making real, government-funded change — and conversations around why this matters.