“Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind it,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Recently, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has been hosting a discussion about the best language to use when talking about people living with mental illness. NAMI is also in the process of developing the NAMI language guide for our leaders and affiliates so that we can be certain that we are doing all we can to support a real-life experience of mental illness. Notably, there is not a complete agreement on what words are the best. So that we can move forward with finding the best language, let’s examine the history of language as related to our movement.
Join the Dialogue
Tell NAMI what you think about the language we use to express the issues affecting our community
One thing is for certain: as writer Casey Miller wrote, “All language reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved.” Thus we can look back at the era in which people living with mental illness were described as “patients” and see that—with few real treatments and little understanding of the biological nature of mental illness—all one could do was patiently wait for one’s symptoms to improve.
The word “consumer” grew out of the individuals’ recovery movement. It was chosen by many advocates because it implied an element of choice in the mental health services used by people living with mental illness. Interestingly, this is the term that produced the most negative reaction in most (but not all) of the respondents to the recent SAMHSA articles.
We object so strongly to some words because they point to realities we find objectionable. Language is the bridge between how we want to be thought of and what we want done about it.
Most of us can agree that we want people to understand mental illness as an illness like any other while also helping them understand the realities and the impact that mental illness has on us as individuals and as families. How does out language express both the challenges and the reality of our personal experience? What language can we use to get us there?
NAMI’s goal is to find transparent, inclusive language that will be the bridge between the idea and the reality of the world we want for people living with mental illness. This, along with SAMHSA’s efforts, will help us define the way America understands mental illness.