Forum: Change vocabulary used to describe mental health

Posed photo of a person with depression.
Posed photo of a person with depression.PHOTO: ST FILE

The Straits Times' Singapore editor Zakir Hussain noted that the pandemic can be seen as an opportunity to fundamentally change the way we view mental wellness (When crisis underlines the need for change, Sept 27).

He called for, among other things, more preventive action and "placing lived experience at the heart of mental healthcare".

I propose we also review the vocabulary we use when discussing mental health. This would go a long way towards addressing the stigma associated with mental healthcare.

First, people seeking counselling should be called clients and not patients. Mental health is a continuum and not all issues faced by people are medical in nature.

Sometimes, talk therapy with a counsellor or psychologist is more appropriate than getting medication from a psychiatrist (a doctor specialising in the treatment of mental disorders).

Calling those who seek such help clients could help persuade someone to get professional support.

Many people with mental health issues are reluctant to seek help because they wrongly believe that only people with serious disorders need to do so.

Second, those who end their own lives are commonly said to have "committed suicide". The phrase describes the event like a crime and suggests the individual shoulders some blame for it.

While Singapore decriminalised attempted suicide earlier this year, our vocabulary around it has yet to change.

The litmus test for talking about suicide is to substitute the word "cancer" for "suicide". We wouldn't say someone committed cancer. We would simply say he died of cancer.

People with mental health issues have far more sides to them than their condition. To accept someone as a person first is not only more respectful, but also acknowledges that there is more to him beyond his diagnosis.

We shouldn't say, for example, that someone is bipolar. Instead, we should just describe him as living with the condition.

Recently, I was heartened to hear Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Alvin Tan, in his maiden parliamentary speech, define mental health broadly.

He alluded to the fact that the conditions can often be temporary in nature by referring to them as "mental ailments" or "mental injuries".

Mr Tan was also upfront about the biggest barrier that people face in seeking help over their mental health - shame.

A better vocabulary would go some way to changing this.

Shilpa Jain

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2020, with the headline 'Change vocabulary used to describe mental health'. Subscribe