Mind your [mental health] language

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Image from Time to Change

 The use of mental health imagery such as ‘psychotic’, ‘loony’, ‘mad’ or ‘demented’ to describe the apparently mentally ill are the vestiges of a crueller society where we once visited asylums to gape and mock the plight of the patients incarcerated there. Language such as this sends out a strong message: that it is socially acceptable and legal to discriminate against people with mental health problems and to find putative symptoms of mental distress, funny. Each Halloween we have the debate about whether ‘psycho’ outfits, theme park attractions which depict asylums or straight jacket fancy dress costumes sold in ASDA et al are harmless ‘fun’ as some claim or whether they contribute to a damaging and outdated stereotype. Certainly there exist publications (The Sun, The Daily Mail) and retail companies who set a very low bar when it comes to standards of behaviour around disability and discrimination and we are not surprised when they use such slurs. But what happens when those who have previously set out their stalls as ‘mental health champions’ show similar discriminatory and bigoted attitudes? Is it merely ignorance or a wilful disregard of the feelings of people with mental health problems?


When a person in the media uses the word ‘psychotic’ to describe something they don’t understand or applies it to behaviour that defies subjective interpretation (to describe violence, hard to understand or unreasonable actions for example) they are making a direct link between several negative behaviours and mental illness, contributing to the tide of micro-aggression that people with mental health issues have to run the gauntlet of. To give examples: Times of London writer Caitlin Moran tweeted (to another writer Grace Dent) “when can we start openly saying “His massive psychotic breakdown?” in a conversation that went on to make fun of mental illness; fellow columnist India Knight refers to “the depressed people”, uses terms like ‘mental’ as a pejorative and then (in an earlier column which attracted massive criticism) denied that depression is a taboo subject saying “taboos exist, certainly, but they concern people who are eating from bins and shouting at pigeons” [a gross stereoype in itself] then continues to ramble on in a manner that clearly demonstrates the years of wisdom and learning she has amassed in the field of mental health: “Going on and on about depression can seem an awful lot like narcissism…you long for someone to say “I felt like crap for two years and then I got over it.” Which is, by the way, what normal people do.” 


Now nobody is suggesting that India Knight and Grace Dent know anything about psychiatry- and their comments certainly back this up- but Moran has written frequently about mental illness, has criticised government policy and tried to draw attention to the stigma that mental illness attracts. Her editorial would certainly lead readers to assume she has partaken of some research into all matters psychiatric before commenting upon them. Moran would also point out that the comment above was made three years ago and that, as she has said with regard to other complaints about her use of the terms ‘monged’ and ‘retard’ and about not giving a ‘shit‘ that the programme Girls reflects nothing other than a white cis middle class consciousness, she regrets their use. However Moran has never apologised about using mental health slurs and she remains pretty defiant about it, a reaction that has to be assumed when viewed through the prism of her response to polite criticism on twitter. Storifyed tweets from Moran about ‘lesbian hair’, looking like a ‘demented harpy’, doing a‘wheely armed thing like a spazz’ alongside the more recent mental health slurs which caused people to question her about these on twitter resulted in Moran blocking those concerned. No response was received other than this. We have to assume that when it comes to offending people with mental illness, Moran does not, indeed, give a shit and prefers to frame the politest of twitter enquiries about why this might be, as a troll attack in order to protect her own fragile self-justification.


So, I hear you say, most of these were a few years ago, Moran has apologised and I would agree that yes, she has apologised about her ‘spazz/mong slurs but this mea-culpa was only offered after a certain level of negative publicity resulted. Secondly what exactly has Moran learned when she still uses discriminatory mental health  language? See this quote from a recent interview in Australian Marie-Claire in response to an interviewer asking about the link between success and looks and women only being ‘fit to be seen and heard if they look a certain way.’ Moran replies: “Again that’s down to power, and that will change. For me, that’s so much the value of Lena Dunham. She turns up on that red carpet, dressed like [she’s mental]. She’s got – I say all of these words lovingly – fat upper arms, she has a schlumpy posture, she is wearing things that most stylists wouldn’t or shouldn’t have put her in.” So Moran (very ‘lovingly’, I must emphasise) makes a direct link between being mentally ill and ‘looking mental’ in that ‘mental’ people have poor posture, fat arms and cannot dress themselves in a socially acceptable manner. Her ‘love’ is concerned with the feelings of Lena Dunham about having Moran reference her fat arms, not those of people who are mentally ill. And this is not the first time either; check out her twitter feed and in conversations with other people you will find frequent references to looking, being, sounding or acting ‘mental’.

So what does ‘looking mental’ mean? Catharine Zeta Jones, Jimmy Piersall and Stephen Fry (bipolar disorder); John Nash, Lionel Aldridge, Nijinsky (schizophrenia); Ruby Wax, David Ruffley MP, Buzz Aldrin, Melvyn Bragg, Matt Haig, Yves St Laurent, Winston Churchill and Caitlin Moran (depression, anxiety); Gwyneth Paltrow (post natal depression) have all experienced illness and/or talked about their mental health problems. I struggle to find a commonality in their look; some sign of their internal life or struggles, of their intrapersonal relationship. What does ‘looking cancer’ mean? Is there a migraine look outside of the physical expression of pain during an attack or a specific physical appearance (visible to all) associated with colitis or diabetes or epilepsy? What does a person with Conns look like? A person with Sjogrens, how might they look? Or someone with spinal injuries- what is their ‘look’?

Would you define appearance so easily and pejoratively in the light of these conditions and expect to get away with it ? Would you call those objecting to that as being politically correct and humourless? Even conditions that result in external clues escape the idea that they have a ‘look’. We don’t have a motor neurone disease look or a multiple sclerosis look that comes attached to a moral or behavioural judgement.

Moran loves the word mental as much as she appears to enjoy insulting people with mental health problems. Falling in love with the novels in her characters? This makes her “an egotistical mental.” In a piece about the pressures of the music industry she (again) affectionately refers to “pop star nutters” because, like an abusive man, if your punch comes from a place of affection, it must be okay. And asked about why she wrote ‘Raised by Wolves’, she replies, “these mugs will buy any mental moth-munched ra-ra skirt if you list it as ‘like Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.”

Clearly a neophyte when it comes to the subject of paternalism in mental health care, Moran appears embarrassingly confused about affectionate and pejorative terms. From time immemorial, the history of mental health care is littered with seemingly benevolent measures which had the ultimate result of removing all personhood from those people with mental illnesses. These measures included blanket terminology which we know now to be undermining and stigmatising.

Moran also appears to be deliberately confused about what an apology should mean with regard to extending her learning, like a child that burns itself on a stove then continues to burn itself on radiators. When readers objected to her example of privileged, blinkered white middle-class feminism and requested she stop insulting people with learning disabilities; that she stop making references to AIDS in a damaging manner, she acquiesced. To continue to promote insulting and ignorant images about mental illness whilst pretending to care about mental health is a uniquely dysfunctional stance which simply compounds the damage because sadly, a lot of young women especially see Moran as a role model. If Moran refers to people, things and behaviours as ‘mental’ or ‘psychotic’, if she refers to ‘dressing mental’, they will think that it is okay to do this too.

Her response to the ‘haterz’ as any dissenters are charmingly depicted is to claim that she uses her column to “write about welfare and mental illness and gay rights and, without being too mawkish, I just try to be a good person. I have three pages a week in The Times, and I try to use them to spread either joy, or understanding about subjects other people don’t write much about.” She added, “if only people who are completely perfect are allowed to comment on things, or activate, or ask for change, then we’re doomed. This world has a billion small problems, and if the only people who can tackle them are the ones who’ve never said anything a bit rancid to a friend at 2am, then literally nothing will ever get done.” Now this is a great point but deliberately swerves away from the fact that those asking her to stop the mental health slurs are speaking from an informed position of not using those slurs themselves. Plenty of us do not say ‘rancid’ things (aka make prejudiced comments) to each other at 2 a.m, drink notwithstanding. You don’t need to be perfect to comment that her mental health language is a bit shit and her argument negates anyone’s right to challenge racism or sexism or any other ism or indeed, anything else at all.

Legitimate criticism of Moran, Knight et al is dismissed by the women concerned as being the words of jealous haters and trolls, a useful psychological device to avoid having to own their prejudice or answer to the people who buy the papers that print their opinions. They are very good at standing up for each other but less skilled at or willing to stand up for the rights of people with mental illness to not have to tolerate this stigma. Questions of prejudice and discrimination are swept under the carpet in order to protect the fragile egos of privileged columnists because make no mistake, Moran might have started off as part of the proletariat but she is very far removed from it now. And it has made her cruel and arrogant.

Time to Change: Let’s end mental health discrimination


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