Mental health… problems… issues… disorders… ill health? What does it all mean? Is this creating a semantic confusion around the topic of mental health?
Time for change?

As a linguist, I love words and definitions. This is particularly true about English words I had to learn as a second foreign language because they sometimes defer so much from my mother tongue. When I developed an interest in stress, anxiety and resilience, I started reading articles in the press and analysed the words used. What struck me the most was that the word ‘mental health’. which would be translated as ‘santé mentale’ in French and implies ‘health of the mind’  or ‘wellness of the mind’ was associated with negative words such as issues, problems, disorder, ill-health, illness or even disorders. These words were used intermittently and interchangeably.

This was rather surprising because I also thought and felt that there was a difference between an issue, a problem, and a disorder.

The impacts of our unconscious process of word selection

In ‘The Structure of Magic I ’’ Bandler and Grinder explain that ‘when humans communicate – when we talk, discuss, write – we usually are not conscious of the process of selecting words to represent our experience’. This is obviously a good thing as otherwise it would impact our exchanges with people if we had to think about every single word we use when we speak but they also state that thus ‘we are almost never conscious of the way in which we order and structure the words we select. Language so fills our world that we move through it as a fish swims through water’ (1975:22).

Could this lack of conscious awareness of language selection lead us to simply accept word collocations and not to question them? Could this unconsciously impact our definitions and acceptance of so many different expressions?

And finally, how is this having an impact on our understanding of mental health and our mental health literacy mentioned in a previous post?

What is mental health?

a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being’ – Oxford English Dictionary

Mental Health was defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a ‘state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’ (WHO, 2014).

You will no doubt agree with me that it is a very positive and empowering definition.

So, why are we not seeing it used in the press and media more often, just like we see the word physical health on its own?

The confusing impact of multiple negative modifiers

A modifier is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, as a word, especially an adjective or noun used attributively, that restricts or adds to the sense of a head noun. Examples of modifiers collocated with mental health are ‘crisis’, ‘issues’, ‘disorders’, ‘problems’ which are, by the way, all negative.

I believe that all these expressions, used intermittently and interchangeably as meaning the same thing, create semantic confusion.

As George Orwell pointed out in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, the English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’.

We need to pay more attention to the words we use when we talk about mental health because a muddled language will lead to muddled thinking.

But as Orwell also explains this process is reversible and either though’ Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation it can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly’

Let’s all start today by using mental health on its own to give this lovely word the power it truly deserves back and focus on how we can all reach this state of well-being in education so that we can achieve our own potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully and make a contribution to our various communities. Ready?

We will then take a look at the different states of mental health…

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please do comment below.