When Speaking About Mental Health, Language Matters

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Why does language matter? What is the difference between describing someone as ‘Is Bipolar’ or ‘Has Bipolar’?

Firstly, language is a powerful tool of expression. We tell stories with language and these stories conjure up images and ideas in the listener. We can impact the way people think or perceive the world around them with the language we use. Language can change people’s opinions of others and more importantly when it comes to mental health, themselves.

When we say someone ‘is’ their mental health diagnosis people immediately jump to their preconceived notion of the illness. They see what their experience of it is; what they have heard and seen in the media. It causes us to stereotype without really realising that’s what we’re doing. When someone says to me I ‘am’ bipolar it makes me feel that this diagnosis defines me. That my personality and the essence of what makes me who I am has been dwindled down to a mental illness. All that I am is bipolar, and this is all anyone ever sees. It impacts my self esteem in a significant way. It is limiting and dehumanising. It takes away our individuality to be spoken about in this way. Although I believe labels are important and a tool to receive treatment and provides answers to behaviours, being seen as just a label can be damaging.

When you say that someone ‘has’ a mental illness it has a completely different impact. I feel like I can be seen as a person and individual. It shows to me that the person understands mental illness and how it affects me. They understand that I might be struggling and need support.

There is still a huge discrepency between how we use language for physical and mental illness. Whereas physical illness sufferers are seen as fighters, those with mental illnesses are seen as weak. If you have a physical illness you’re often seen as blameless, it’s ‘just one of those things.’ With mental illness you’re seen as a failure and ‘you could be doing more to help yourself.’ Mental illnesses are biological, we have a genetic susceptibility and they are often coupled with environmental factors. It isn’t a weakness or failure on our part, but the misuse of language continues to contribute to the stigma.

It’s important that we use language delicately and with care when discussing mental illness. Think about how much impact your words have and how they can shape a person’s self worth.

 

I Gave Up Alcohol For My Mental Health

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My last psychiatry appointment was a tough one – I was told with certainty that I should, no, needed to give up alcohol. My response was a hopeful one, surely half a bottle of wine on a Saturday night was alright? The answer was a definitive no, even that amount of alcohol was far too much. We agreed that I should go sober, and I agreed reticently. I left feeling dejected, grumpy and silently cursing my psychiatrist. Although I felt fed up, I had known before my appointment that this change needed to happen.

Why go sober? 

My psychiatrist explained that alcohol reduces the effectiveness of many medications. Alcohol is a depressant, and pretty much cancels out the work my mental health medication does. In other words, I might as well not bother taking my medication every time I drink. If I have three days in a row of drinking, then that’s three days without medication. For me that can cause the beginning of withdrawal symptoms, that feel like having the flu. Or, more seriously, it can cause a bipolar episode of severe depression or mania.

The mental and physical effects

After a heavy weekend, or a number of days in a row of a ‘few’ drinks in the evening to help me unwind and relax I start feeling the negative effects of alcohol. I’ve noticed a correlation between heavy drinking and heart palpitations, that often leads to a full blown panic attack. Panic attacks are a debilitating and exhausting experience, and I’ll feel drained for days afterwards. Another experience I’ve had after drinking is psychosis. Earlier this year I drank heavily over my birthday weekend and at the end of it began to hear voices. I wrote about the experience in this post, My Hearing Voices Journal Alcohol free, I wouldn’t have gone through these experiences, and would have stayed mentally well and stable.

How I did it

I literally just stopped! Seriously though, it’s been tough, especially on nights out and at family celebrations. I’ve been drinking since I was fourteen, so to just suddenly go completely sober was a massive challenge. I was open about it with everyone, and my partner, family and friends have all been extremely supportive. I reached out to the twitter community and was given heaps of advice and tips on non alcoholic drinks so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on nights out. Soda and lime cordial has been my saviour when I’m out at a bar, along with flavoured sparkling water when I’m having a night in. It’s taken a terrific amount of self determination and will power, but I knew it was something I had to do for my mental health.

How I’m feeling now

Two months later and I feel fantastic! I’m clear headed, have more energy and haven’t had any palpitations or panic attacks. I’ve been stable and haven’t experienced psychosis or any depressive or manic episodes. I feel physically healthier and I’ve lost weight. I know my medications are working as they should be now, and that’s given me the impetus to stay sober.

I may have left my psychiatric appointment with a feeling of dread and wondering how the hell I was going to go sober, but I’m so glad I stuck with my decision.