How We Talk About Mental Health

By: Brett Wilfrid, Board President

I used to love reading William Safire's column in the New York Times called "On Language," and was reminded of it recently.

At our annual meeting and gala, a few of our members spoke with me about using precision in language (using "mental illness" and not using "mental health" and certainly not "issues"). What language should we use?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness grew out of AMI, the Alliance for the Mentally Ill. A little preposition can go a long way in changing the tone or message.

What about mental ... "illness?" "Disorders?" "Health?" "Issues?" or "Mental health issues?" NAMI also references "mental health conditions."

When figuring out how to talk about these things, we can find useful analogies in the long histories of civil rights. Our language has evolved in how we talk about things like people's ancestries or gender identity.

With our increasing sensitivity (the oft-derided "political correctness"), our use of language can become more complicated and challenging. We simultaneously desire increased precision, but increased sensitivity often requires more care, and more words.

Perhaps the most complicated, but best, way of speaking is to be sure to know what the other person's preferences are and honor those.

And just as what was once known as AMI has grown over these last 40 years and magnified in size and scope, I think it's wise for us to have broad definitions when seeking to include (a broad, welcoming tent of people of like mind, ready to advocate for progressive change) and precision when necessary (for accurate diagnosis or prescribing appropriate medication, for example).

Whether you're a person who's just helping others open their eyes to the myriad mental health or wellness implications for love, life, and career, or you are living with or living with someone with a very specific mental illness, I hope you'll take the opportunity to go the extra step to advocate for and support the recovery of the ones you love.