maybe we’ll never go insane;

Inappropriate language, the use thereof, has become something of a bugbear of mine in recent days (and, you’ll be pleased to note, the bugbear of a Handsome Feminist Officer of the Law at Strathclyde Police who I spoke to last week). This article from the BBC on the increasing use of mental health terminology, particularly by the media, on a metaphorical and usually inaccurate level was therefore particularly timely, and not only because it was the start of Mental Health Awareness Week.

First the disclosure: I have two mental health conditions which, although I may not often publicly document them, have affected my life now for longer than they haven’t. And it’s not that I’m ashamed of them – you’ll have heard that “one in four” statistic, indicating the proportion of the population who will suffer from a mental health condition at some point in their lives? My friends and I joke that the proportion is significantly higher among our group. I feel I have a duty to discuss my health problems openly and honestly with those who want to hear about them, like a one-woman awareness-raising PR campaign.

But I agree, absolutely, that mental health problems are stigmatised. Particularly if you don’t have one of the big-hitters. If you’re taking pills for “depression” and “anxiety”, or you’re one of the people the CIPD is reporting have made “stress” the most common cause of long-term workplace sickness absence. You think your colleagues are judging you and your bosses think you are lazy, even if you’re lucky enough (as, I should stress, I am) to work somewhere progressive enough to recognise you are receiving treatment for a chronic health condition. The SUPER HAPPY FUN PART is that I then get to carry around a whole truckload of worry, doubt and guilt on top of everything else that contributes to the mornings I struggle to get out of bed and the evenings I refuse to go anywhere else.

I was too sick to a post on this yesterday, and too sick – for the first time in a long time – to go into work. Yes, at the start of mental health awareness week. This is the point that I was planning to jump in and say HA! the irony is that my dizziness and nausea were due to a physical ailment! but annoyingly my doctor said that this was not the case.

“Do you suffer from any psychological conditions?” he said, sneering at me.

“I don’t know. You tell me,” was what I didn’t say, even as an imposing letter headed DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHIATRY poked its way out of my file.

Anyway. Back to the article, which gave some examples of the media trend:

In December 2010 the Observer newspaper apologised for describing TV presenter Gok Wan’s dress sense as “schizophrenic”. The International Monetary Fund’s September 2011 World Economic Outlook, characterised a volatile global economy as “bipolar”. In an article for the Sunday Times, the writer Robert Harris described Gordon Brown and Richard Nixon as displaying “political Asperger’s syndrome”.

And that would have been it. I’d have said something halfway committal, calling out a lazy media that will use the same loaded terms as lazy clichés with which to shoot down both September’s weather and Kerry Katona. I might have mentioned, as some of the people interviewed for the BBC piece did, that on one hand it is encouraging to see these terms enter daily discourse and the public consciousness but for fuck’s sake, haven’t we got it straight yet that schizophrenia and multiple personalities have nothing to do with each other?

Except that, hilariously, the very day after running such an interesting feature the BBC let Labour MP and Environmental Audit Committee member Joan Walley’s comments on the government’s “somewhat schizophrenic attitude” towards climate change policy run unchallenged.

Now it may be that Walley is highlighting the irrationality of the Government’s climate change policies, or that they are out of touch with reality, in keeping with the clinical definition of schizophrenia. However, I have to suspect that this is not in fact the case – or if it is, the BBC haven’t taken that meaning from her words as they’ve stuck with the ‘mixed message’. It would seem, therefore, that what we have here is a case of a highly-educated person paid to be a public representative using emotive language in a misleading and wholly inaccurate manner.

Either that or it’s just moany me refusing to shut up again and indicating that my favourite of the clichés is the one about mountains and molehills. What strikes me though is how unlikely you’d be to catch the media and public figures out in the act of mixing their metaphors with physical conditions. Or maybe I’m less sensitive about it.

While I wait to see whether Ms Walley agrees, let me leave you with this piece by Susannah Breslin on ‘why crazy people make better bloggers’.

UPDATED 12/10: In response to my email, Joan Walley says: “Absolutely no offence was intended, apologies. And future press releases will certainly learn from this.”



  1. P
    October 11, 2011 / 8:24 pm

    This is a good piece. Though I would like to say (though it’s in the original article, and it DOES get misused) that Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurological condition, rather than a mental health condition. Living with it often causes mental health conditions, it can result in behavioural problems, and it’s often co-morbid with yet more mental health conditions, plus it’s in the DSM, but…it’s every bit as much a neurological disorder as my CP.

    • October 12, 2011 / 9:28 am

      Thanks for that Penny, that’s a miscategorisation that REALLY annoys me but I suppose if I’d gone into it I would have gone too far off the topic of my original post! I guess the article-writer was correct in that Asperger’s gets misused in the same way as mental health conditions do… but it’s a bit of an irony fail not to do your research in a piece like that!

  2. CarefulFM
    October 13, 2011 / 1:23 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed this, and the Forbes one you linked to. Using terms like that really annoys me, but I have to admit that I regularly use words like “mental” and “insane” when I should stop being lazy with vocabulary and say incredulous or incredible or ludicrous or ect. Although what you’re talking about above is worse as it does reinforce misconceptions about specific mental illnesses.