“Just get over it.” “The past is in the past.” “What’s your problem?!” “You cry too much.” “You are too sensitive.” “That’s mental.” “What’s wrong with you?!?”
These are common phrases one can hear while navigating mental illnesses. I know. I’ve lived through this myself as I struggle living alongside with complexPTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. As I continue to look at how our language reinforces our identities, I would like to take a quick peak at the subject of mental health.
A good book on the history of mental illness and how society reacted to ‘madness’ is Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason by Michel Foucault. Foucault covers the history from the middle ages to the end of the nineteenth. He shows the progression of erasing those struggling with mental illness (madness) and gaining the stigma that lepers once had. He referred to this marginalization as “the great confinement” of the ‘madmen’ (Foucault, 1988). What I found interesting while reading this book is at one time in history, if one had a mental illness, they were not ostracized from society or treated as ‘other’. Historically language such as ‘moron’, ‘retarded’ have been not only acceptable, but used even in textbooks. Within my own collection I have an older psychology book called General Psychology. I would like to share some text from this book within the topic of mental health:
“Feebleminded persons were recognized long before there were mental tests. They were so lacking in mental ability as to be obvious to the average observer, and if they were social dependents or annoyers, they were segregated in special institutions when such institutions were available. Three degrees of feeblemindedness were distinguished. … the idiot, who is distinguished for his inability to dress and feed himself and to avoid common dangers such as fire and water. … the imbecile, who can avoid common dangers and take care of his elementary personal wants, but cannot be taught to earn a living, even under supervision. … The moron can be taught to do useful work and can sometimes earn a living, especially under supervision (Guilford, 507, 1939).” [emphasis mine]
Is it any wonder we are so entrenched in our current language when historically these terms were the norm and deemed appropriate? To this day, we hear these phrases in our use of language, especially in our own self-talk. Present day, bringing mental health into the forefront and erasing the stereotypes and stigmatism has become a current norm of sort. Despite many movements here in Canada such as Bell’s Lets Talk campaign (#BellLetsTalk) are we making progress? Working at a university, we are becoming more conscientious of students who struggle with anxiety attacks and other mental illnesses and yet I am surrounded by those who still ‘other’ these students and are frustrated at “having to accommodate”. Even as a student myself, especially when writing papers, I find I do not want to be stereotyped if struggling with anxiety which deeply affects my production of papers, as I have to battle many panic attacks before a paper is written. I do not like to say anything but realize in hiding my own anxieties, it flies
in the face of my own advocacy of bringing mental health issues to the forefront. I just want to be ‘normal’ and found I’d rather accept a lower mark, then bring attention to an anxiety disorder. So I am deny my own issues while standing up for others full disclosures. I then become a part of the problem too. We need to encourage and build safe places to talk of our this situations to help those not struggling see how real this is, be aware, and to accommodate our language and action.
For more educational information:
Guilford, J. P. (1939). General Psychology. Philadelphia: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.