Recently, I got “beat up” by the language police in a bloody Facebook fight. I was charged with:
1. Using the term “SMI” to refer to the “Seriously Mentally Ill” population.
2. Asserting that conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were “organic brain disorders,” different than situational issues such as trauma-based depression or stress-related anxiety.
The “language police,” aware of my personal history with traumas from hospitalizations and misdiagnoses, blasted me for my “hypocrisy,” and “holier than thou” attitude. Many people shared stories of having been traumatized by narrow-minded or inaccurate labels like these from traditional-mindedmental health providers. Diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar, they’d been told they’d “never recover” or never lead “normal” lives.
Any sort of label stereotyped people. Providers were unwilling or unable to acknowledge each client as an individual with unique needs and potentials.
Why Empowerment Movements Worry About Language
Every population that seeks to change the way society views it tries to change the language society uses to describe them. Words carry unconscious values. To change the values, it’s usually necessary to change the words, cognitive linguist George Lakoff says.
Mental patients became clients became consumers became – what? Survivors? Ex-patients? Each new word was considered more equal to caregivers than the one before. Nobody likes the term “consumer.” But society has learned that word, and it is hard to change, even if we could all agree on a replacement.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) had a problem with its well=known initials and brand name that appears on every product and piece of paper. “For the Mentally Ill” ran afoul of its revised mission, to become a full partnership with consumers, and to talk about them as people first, not defined by their illness. “For the” made consumers subordinate to “healthy” people in NAMI, and “the mentally ill” defined a whole population by its illness, not as people first.
Instead of throwing out all their stationery, institutional publicity, and training materials, they changed their name to the less patronizing National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
It goes beyond what we call ourselves. We want to change the entire vocabulary people use to talk about us. Mary Ellen Copeland, the award-winning recovery pioneer who invented the Wellness and Recovery Action Plan (WRAP), now a federally designated Evidence-Based Practice, talks about “sickness language” and “wellness language,” or “recovery language.”
All medical jargon and diagnostic labels are sickness language, Mary Ellen says. Just using the words implies you have a disease. “Coping skill” implies there is something wrong with you that you must cope with. She uses the term “wellness tool.”
Not all coping skills are wellness tools, she says. Drinking, drugging, unsafe sex, cutting, etc. are coping skills that can damage you. “Special needs” has come to imply otherness, even inferiority, despite the best intentions of people who use the term. “Schizo,” “psycho,” “a Borderline,” and “a BI-polar” are just plain insults that imply a person is just their incurable, socially unacceptable disease, nothing else.
Wellness Wordworks, 25 years younger than WRAP, believes “distress and disease” language are better than WRAP’s “sickness, wellness, or recovery” language. “Wellness and recovery” imply a condition to get well or recover from, like addiction.
Everybody experiences distress and adversity at different times in their lives, for different reasons. Everyone can get through it and come out whole, or stronger on the other side. The opposite of the distress model is the chronic brain disease model, or “disease model,” the basis of today’s mental health system, with its diagnosis and medication first for everyone for life.
SMI, the term I used that brought the language police down on my neck, is a chronic disease label that that many people find insulting, that can trigger previous traumas inflicted by the system. But I was quoting a published description of a job I was applying for.
Should political correctness extend to direct quotes from someone else’s published material. The employer said it, I didn’t.
Language Reformers Can Be Language Police
At what point do much-needed, legitimate language reformers become dictatorial, doctrinaire language police, enforcing their ideas of political correctness?
My other offense against the language police was implying that conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were “organic brain disorders,” different than situational issues like the trauma-based depression or stress-related anxiety that I had.
Corinna West tells how a peer “cured” her chronic psychosis and schizophrenia by framing it in distress language, and finding its roots in her trauma history, not her brain chemistry. She still experiences hallucinations sometimes when she’s tired, stressed, or triggered, but she knows they are her normal reactions to abnormal events, not an incurable brain disease. She no longer gets scared of her own mind, and that makes the hallucinations less severe and long-lasting.
Evidence supporting the chemical brain disorder theory gets weaker the more closely people examine it. The main proof has always been the inference that psychiatric medication, which changes brain chemistry, would not help so many people unless there was a chemical brain disorder to correct. But no one has ever shown what, where, or why the disorder is.
There is no denying that psych meds cause intolerable, dangerous side effects in many people right away, but it is equally undeniable that many people get a lot of help, at least in the short term. The question recent research is raising is whether meds do more harm than good in the long term, and when people should try to wean off.
Psych meds clearly helped a delusional hospital roommate and home health care client of mine, plus several friends of friends, at least in the short term. Should fear of language police stop me from saying what I saw? Isn’t that suppressing observed experience just because it challenges someone’s ideology? And isn’t that what the mental health system has been doing for 50 years to people who openly disagree with the chemical brain disease theory?
Every identity movement that tries to change the way people talk about them – and the way they see themselves – also seems to produce new, sometimes foolish, rules of political correctness, and its own corps of language police. When they get too doctrinaire and dictatorial, they, and the needed change they want to make, lose credibility.
Can you change chronic brain disease language without becoming nasty Language Police?