All too often, I find myself knee-deep in discussions about language. “What do we call X?” “Wouldn’t it be better to be more ‘inclusive’ and use this other word instead?”
Nowhere is that more evident when it comes to the world of mental illness.
Finding that the word “patient” is too medically oriented, Carl Rogers — 50 or so years ago — suggested a more agnostic term, “client” (such as a lawyer or accountant might have a client). And while I agree client is a more agnostic term, Rogers unfortunately and unintentionally opened up an entire can of worms.
One that haunts us to this day and interferes with our basic ability to communicate when it comes to mental health concerns.
The problem is that once Rogers suggested patients could be called something else, people took that to mean they could use a myriad of different words and phrases to describe themselves.
So now the list lengthens with every passing decade. Here are just some of the labels people who happen to have a mental disorder choose to identify with:
- In recovery
- Mentally ill
- “Aspie,” “Depressive,” “Schizo,” etc.
- Advocate (peer advocate, etc.)
Don’t get me wrong… I’m a firm believer that you can use whatever you want to call yourself. If you want to call yourself Queen of Bipolar, be my guest. If you want to refer to yourself as a “survivor” of a mental illness (or of the treatment system), I think you’re absolutely entitled to that.
But to many, it’s also very confusing. It means when you reference yourself with some new term the rest of aren’t familiar with, we have no idea what you’re talking about (since words and language are based upon a shared foundational understanding).
We are all fundamentally human beings. It would be great if we could just strip all these labels away and say, “Hey, I’m just a person. And these are the things I’ve gone through.” Any label will never capture that full and rich experience.
And that’s why for over 20 years, I’ve told anyone who’s asked, “I’m really concerned about my diagnosis. Do you think it’s X or Y?” I say, “Is it important for you to be diagnosed with X or Y? What would that mean to you?”
Because I think labels are great for having an insurance company pick up the tab on your treatment, or for research purposes. But I think they often are a detriment to us talking about ourselves and our own recovery efforts with a mental health concern.
We get tangled in all these labels, these words, these phrases that mean something different to every single one of us.
That’s why when people start talking about these things, you’ll often see me tune out. I love language and I love words. But these words are emotionally charged with very specific meanings to each person who chooses the label that best fits them.
And there’s little point in arguing about such personal, subjective choices if you’re focused on helping change the conversation for large groups of people — like anybody who doesn’t have or relate to that label.
You are not your disorder or label. Nobody with cancer says, “I am cancer.” They say, “I have cancer,” or “I’m recovering from cancer.”
In the same way, I’d suggest it’s not helpful to identify yourself as “bipolar” or “schizophrenic.” You may be someone who has bipolar disorder, or you may be someone who has schizophrenia. But these conditions don’t have to define your very being. They can just be what they are — a component of your life that you’re getting help for, that you’re working on daily, a part of you, but not all of you.
Call yourself whatever you want. But I’d suggest we gain more benefit by staying focused on the issues that people need to understand to help reduce the prejudice and discrimination that occurs in society today against those who struggle with mental illness and mental health concerns.
By having such a colorful array of labels that mean, “a person who has a mental disorder,” I worry that we risk confusing and alienating others — especially those trying to understand a mental health issue for themselves or a loved one.