Carlene Hill Byron writes at the intersection of mental health, faith and disability. Her book Not Quite Fine: Mental Health, Faith, and Showing Up for One Another (Herald Press, Oct. 2021) looks at how the ordinary work of God’s people supports mental health by helping people find meaning, belonging, purpose, value and hope in our lives.
As a writer and marketer with “lived experience” of mental health challenges, Carlene Byron holds strong opinions about the language we use to describe mental health and mental illness:
- Medications and therapy are not products to be consumed. Therefore, people with mental illness diagnoses are patients of psychiatrists, just as they are patients of GPs and OB/Gyns.
- If half the population experiences mental health problems in our lifetime, then mental health problems are normal, not exceptional. More likely situational than genetic. More nearly what our grandparents called “suffering” and “difficulty.” Even sometimes “peculiarity.” A mental health problem is not necessarily a mental illness best treated with medicines. Friends, hugs, and distractions can go a long way in caring for mental health problems. Also meaning, belonging, purpose, value, and hope. (See #notquitefinebook for details!)
- The word stigma connotes a group who belong outside the community of the acceptable. Patients of psychiatrists (as well as those who need, but are not currently receiving care) do not belong outside the community of the acceptable. Therefore the word stigma does not correctly describe their treatment by our culture.
- On the other hand, the word discrimination connotes the unjust and different treatment of a group for no reason. When an OMB disability reporting form intended for post-hiring use appears in job application packets, this is a sign of discrimination. Stigma is a weasel word. Let’s call it discrimination. You can fight a behavior. Even in court, should it come to that.