Language and Meaning

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?

Quirks and Frailties

* 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.


Filed under Living Well With Depression

14 responses to “Language and Meaning

  1. I tend to refer to myself as “crazy” when I’m symptomatic, particularly when I’m talking about the cognitive dissonance that occurs when there are huge discrepancies between what I know and what I believe. These things are usually about myself and are the result of trauma–e.g., my family told me all these terrible things about myself that I believe are true even though I know the evidence points to the opposite.

    I’ve been scolded many times, mostly by mental health professionals, for using the term crazy. I guess they think it’s self-deprecating, but to me, it’s the most applicable term. It makes me feel CRAZY to hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. It makes me feel CRAZY to be unable to believe good things. And I think the term is useful because it lets me separate out the things my family taught me as both crazy and the source of my craziness. For me, it becomes not self-deprecating but oddly reassuring.


    • I say – hold on to your own language, as you have been! Good for you 🙂 Claim the right to describe yourself as you will, which is so close to the right to express yourself as you will, to *be* as you will … it’s all interconnected, isn’t it?


  2. The DSM is absolutely a blunt instrument, for which many of the diagnoses contained within are totally lacking in validity or reliability, and do not even exist as distinct entities at all. It is common knowledge that the DSM exists to maintain the power of the psychiatric establishment and to protect the profits of Big Pharma and psychiatrists, rather than to help patients. I recently read two interesting books about this; The Book of Woe (by Greenberg) and Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Health (Glasser).


  3. We all suffer abnormality. Some more than others. That is not to diminish the amount of suffering, only to declare there is a continuum of suffering. Normal is not about not suffering rather it is about suffering least or in an average amount.

    Personally I don’t talk about mental health. It does not matter much if you are able to live this moment (not the last one or the next one) in the best manner that you can. No person begrudges someone suffering a broken leg nor a physical deformity. If we all live this exact moment well, there is no other time, no other conformity. It is acceptible to ask forgiveness for a mistake made in the last moment but unforgivable to hold someone accountable for a mistake made many moments ago. Sure, murder is an exception but in general day to day, only this moment counts. Live it well and there is no difference between perceptions of normal and not normal.


    • Um … but there is if one’s frailties mean one cannot work, and has no means of income, and may lose one’s living space because of it! Surely then it becomes something which matters? If the medications you need to take to keep you alive cost money, but you don’t have money, because of the condition which causes you to need the medications in the first place? I think then perhaps there is a distinction between normal function and, well, different function.


      • I did say it was a continuum. Some function better than others. I was not dismissing the conundrum that the suffering face. I merely mean to say that the suffering is not unique nor unknown to ‘normal’ folk. We are all more like each other than we wish to admit. It is a fear, and that fear isolates those that suffer most.


      • Oh of course! I totally agree. Don’t forget that I’m writing mainly for a mental health audience 🙂 Thank you for raising a good point.


      • I suffer too, just not as you do. We all suffer. It is upon us all to alleviate that suffering where we can. Being normal is very difficult to do.


      • Actually, having re-read my original post, I’m a bit unclear as to why you think I am asserting that only people with mental health issues suffer and that ‘normal’ people do not. Could you point out where I make this assertion, please?


  4. How do I label myself? Various ways but the most used terms that I speak when with others are “Hormonal”, “Stressed” or “not in the best of health”. There’s that whole stigma thing again. It is much easier to tell others that I am leaving work to get my life back on track than to admit that a) my mental health needs to heal and b) that work has played a part in it.


  5. Pingback: Shapes and Sizes | In & Out, Up & Down: Dysthymia Bree's Musings On Mental Health and Psychiatric Wards

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