By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator
When it comes to mental health, language is as important as medicine and therapy. As a powerful tool and major medium of human communication, language carries emotions, triggers feelings and conveys values just like how it transports information and opinions around people. And this, is why it plays such an important role in the prevention, treatment and recovery of mental health issues.
Since 1951, Canada has been celebrating Mental Health Week in the first week of May, making it a decades-long tradition to raise awareness, providing support and debunking myths. As the 71st Canadian Mental Health Week officially launches, we would like to share a few facts about how language, both as a spoken language and as a cultural aspect, casts its impact on mental health.
One of the most commonly talked about topic around the use of language in mental health awareness is destigmatization. Like any health concerns, the first step in treating mental illness is identifying the issue and seeking professional medical support. The sad part is that many people hold back in this step due to the fear of being associated with the negative language that is often used to describe mental health conditions. By using neutral and appropriate language, people with a mental health condition are encouraged to seek help, and health care providers can facilitate easier access to treatments.
Being mindful of language abuse goes beyond avoiding negative words, outdated phrases and words that are too emotionally charged. The overuse and misuse of clinical terms such as “OCD” and “depression” is not only disrespectful to those who are experiencing them but can also cause underestimation to the illnesses and blur the line between symptoms that need to be diagnosed by a doctor and a natural mood swing.
What to say and what not to
When supporting someone with a mental health condition, there are respectful and accepting ways to talk about the situation. To list a few:
- Use person-centered language that focuses on the person, rather than labeling them with their condition;
- Use simple languages that are easy to understand and process, avoid jargon;
- Do not assume or pretend to know someone else’s feelings;
- Do not be sarcastic about the condition or use terms that show pity (such as “suffer”).
Language and culture
In a multilingual society like Canada, it’s also important to note that mental health, and the discussions around mental health, are often affected by one’s language and culture. This includes how people view, experience, handle and express their conditions, as well as their behaviours and responses to treatment interventions.
A study conducted among Indigenous people in Norway has found that bilingual people talk about mental health in different languages and different ways depending on who they are with. Some bilingual participants showed that language competence is a huge factor when talking about mental health because sometimes they can’t find the right words they need to describe their feelings in the listener’s language. Some bilingual participants, however, find it easier to discuss details about mental health in a second language, because it would feel less intimate and more socially acceptable in that language’s culture.
As a social enterprise that aims at breaking language barriers and advocating for equity in the access to critical information, where health care information being a significant one, MCIS has been collecting resources and providing webinars and programs with mental health concerns in mind. Below are a few of past discussions and resources, please feel free to share them so they can reach more people in need:
- MCIS COVID-19 Mental Health Resources Page: https://www.mcislanguages.com/covid-19-response/mental-health-resources/
- Language to use when caring for seniors with memory loss: https://www.mcislanguages.com/shedding-light-on-unintentional-senior-abuse-from-caregivers/
- MCIS sponsored LAD22 conference panel “My Mental Health is Multilingual”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EZIfokfSzg