The last time I remember using the words "mentally ill," I was talking with a friend-colleague years ago. As soon as it came out of my mouth I immediately felt a distancing between her and I. I used it when discussing a "clinical" situation at work, but even before her response it felt inadequate and one-dimensional. After I said it she simply said, "I hate the words mentally ill." I knew why she didn't like the words, and I felt like I betrayed her, as I knew it had deeper meaning in her life. Looking back it seems like my words were not only insensitive, but clichéd and only limited the possibility of deeper conversation. I thought using these words allowed me to describe an experience that fit in a box, made it understandable, and provided a level of certainty. Yet, all of this is further from the truth when related to a person's health and whole being.
I hear the label "mentally ill" used on a regular basis - in the media, within the community, medical groups, and with some families I meet with in therapy. I rarely hear it when I meet with someone individually in therapy. They often use words that describe their experience in much more personal ways, which opens up conversation and allows for their story to develop and grow over time. The same happens among family members when there is a shift from using medical jargon to relatable language, which then allows for curiosity and thoughtful discussion.
Since working with families and clinicians, I can't remember witnessing the words "mentally ill" being used and it brought about deeper understanding and connection among those involved. Mentally ill is just one example of the jargon used in our culture when trying to define someone in need. From my lens, it seems to create more distance, hierarchy, and limitations with respect for another – making it a greater challenge to understand and define what is needed to get through a difficult period.
So what are the appropriate words? There are many, some surprising, some familiar, some feeling incomplete, but using the words that the person uses to describe their own experience (I find) is really the key. If they call it "stress," I use the word “stress” in our conversations. If they use "anxious," or "fearful," or “overwhelming thoughts,” I use the same. By reflecting these same words it can move towards a level playing field as well as a sense of being together. This approach supports making decisions together, while listening in a new way and not providing someone with a label that fits my agenda. Also, it allows for a story or conversation to evolve, not stopping it in its tracks.
The words we use to describe ourselves, as well as those to describe others, make deep imprints within us. Words can build walls and tear them down, encourage and dishearten. But a language that is identifiable, shared between each other, has a way to cultivate understanding, and respectfully face challenges in safe ways - creating the possibility of feeling both vulnerability and hope that things are going to change.