I’m reading Delaney’s Babel-17, a sci-fi classic which explores the concept of linguistic relativity – the idea that the language we speak and think in actively shapes our perception and cognition, something I considered during postgraduate work as a student.
The reason this question intrigues me these days is because I find myself thinking about mental health – and mental unhealth – in different ways at different times, and feeling or behaving differently accordingly. I recently wrote about naming disorders of the mind/brain, which lead to some very interesting discussions about the DSM model of diagnosis*. I also remember, not long after starting this blog, receiving a message from a reader pointing out that I used the phrase “mental health” where I might more accurately have used “mental illness”.
What have I noticed about the correlation between language and mood? Well, I’d far rather write about mental health – that which we’re working towards – than mental illness, which we are suffering from. Furthermore, mental health is something we all strive towards, always, whereas an illness – to me – implies a disease which will run its course and reach an endpoint. I don’t believe my illness has an endpoint, per se; I do believe my symptoms will lessen, and I’ll return to “normal” function, but studies have shown that if a brain has undergone a series of major depressive episodes it is more likely to succumb to another in the future. Please, give me the language of future hoped-for health rather than that of a life-long infliction!
How, then, to talk about these things which plague us? This week, I am enjoying the words ‘quirks and frailties’. We all have quirks and frailties; mine just happen to be a bit more dramatic and drastic than the general population, at this stage of my life. Furthermore, I find that just speaking the word ‘quirk’ brings a half-smile to my lips. You’ve got to love a half-smile!
Yes, if a stranger who was entitled to the information asked me what my diagnosis was, I’d speak the words my psychiatrist has written on the latest form: “Major depression with melancholia; generalized anxiety disorder; dysthymia”. If, on the other hand, a friend were to ask, I’d say something like: “My sense of self isn’t strong, due to factors in my formative years and traumas since then. I find that under stress I react using maladaptive coping mechanisms which lead to less-than-optimal outcomes. My mood is prone to sudden and dramatic plummets, which are not predictable, and leave me vulnerable to disruptive images and urges which are most unfortunate; however, I am continually learning new strategies which help me deal with these interruptions to life more effectively and quickly.”
On the other hand, I might also say: “My quirks and frailties are presenting particularly strongly these days.”
What’s your favoured manner of speaking about disorders of the mind / brain?
* The DSM – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, now in its fifth edition – is the ‘bible’ of psychiatry and clinical psychology. DSM diagnoses are often tied to the funding of treatment. For example, here in Australia, if you have certain DSM diagnoses you can receive particular medications on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, whereas without them you need to pay full price – even if the drug has been shown to be effective for your disorder. Stateside readers tell me that insurance companies fund treatment options differently according to DSM diagnoses. However, in my opinion, the DSM is a blunt instrument, not up to the task of classifying individual differences.