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 such as the flu (I’m not talking about chronic illness here, which is often stigmatised just as much as mental 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.