watchful words: 7 ways to rename a mental illness

in thinking about today’s blog post and still in line with this week’s theme of the national mental health week, i came back to one of my favourite books about therapy, ben furman’s and tapani ahola’s solution talk: hosting therapeutic conversations. the following is an excerpt and summary of the chapter, “watchful wording” where they talk about diagnostic terms.

names, labels and diagnostic concepts in mental health are more than just innocent terms used to refer to particular problems. they are also shorthand for underlying beliefs and assumptions about the nature of the problem. they refer not only to observable behaviour but also to a host of presuppositions about important questions such as severity, course, causation, and therapeutic interventions.

to select a particular term is to subscribe to a legion of underlying assumptions associated with that term. words used in psychiatry and psychology (e.g. identity disorder, symbiotic psychosis, major depression) often tell us little, sometimes almost nothing, about the actual problem, but a great deal about what we should think about it.

here are some examples of wording mental health issues in ways that are more descriptive, more meaningful and, most importantly, more helpful and conducive to healing. the important thing to keep in mind is we are not trying to re-invent terminology here; rather, the aim is to make the words a better fit to a particular experience.

furman and ahola were called in to help workers on a crisis line deal with an annoying, intimidating caller, who they referred to as “the aggressive caller”. what’s a name that fits his behaviour but would also be agreeable to him? they renamed him “the midnight cowboy”.

people with borderline personality disorder can simply be “going through turbulent times.”

“feeling blue”, “down in the dumps” are well-known synonyms for depression. and how about “taking an inventory break” or “gathering energy”?

then – putting a positive twist on “brooding” – brooding is like hatching. what’s the person hatching? what’s the exciting new thing that’s about to be born?

i also love the idea of switching the idea of “masked depression” to “latent joy”.

instead of “alcoholic”, one could refer to “needing to cut back on the drinking”; another suggestion was “tormented by the booze-worm”.

chronic schizophrenia, say furman and ahola, “is the conventional label for long-lasting deviant behaviour associated with bizarre ideas”. other terms for it might be “in the corner lifestyle” (proposed by michael white).

“wild imagination”, “daydreaming”, “having ghosts” or “being scared to death” are alternatives to using the words “psychotic symptoms”.

finally, christina chew asks whether people with autism and/or asperger’s syndrome aren’t just “quirky” or “gifted”.

any more ideas out there on giving “pet names” to your emotional experiences?

isabella mori
moritherapy
counselling in vancouver

8 thoughts on “watchful words: 7 ways to rename a mental illness

  1. Scott

    At one of the many mental illness sites I used to visit, we used to use the word “Krazee.” Like, “I took my Krazee pills yesterday.”

    We loved it. It took away the sting of all the other words we got called, like “insane,” “sick” and of course, “crazy.”

    However, Crazyboards.org has absolutely the best and funniest descriptions of mental illnesses that I have seen. Be warned, they are pretty offensive though.

  2. Scott

    At one of the many mental illness sites I used to visit, we used to use the word “Krazee.” Like, “I took my Krazee pills yesterday.”

    We loved it. It took away the sting of all the other words we got called, like “insane,” “sick” and of course, “crazy.”

    However, Crazyboards.org has absolutely the best and funniest descriptions of mental illnesses that I have seen. Be warned, they are pretty offensive though.

  3. ddrucker

    It’s interesting that the change in language that you are viewing as helpful was also the subject of a comedy routine by George Carlin. He bemoaned the changes in the terms that describe the state of someone mentally affected by the events of the battlefield; In the World Wars, it was called ‘Shell-Shock’. In the US/Korean war it was ‘Battle Fatigue’. Now, he complains bitterly, it’s a term ‘drained of all humanity’: ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome’

    Although it is interesting to ponder how the rewording of an affliction or condition can result in a different attitude toward it (for better or for worse), I’m reminded of all of those ‘x’-challenged people, when that sort of language quickly became a sure-fire joke about Political Correctness: He’s not deaf, he’s ‘Hearing Challenged’, she’s not short, she’s ‘Height Challenged’. Finally, it was They’re not Dead, they’re ‘metabolically challenged.’

  4. ddrucker

    It’s interesting that the change in language that you are viewing as helpful was also the subject of a comedy routine by George Carlin. He bemoaned the changes in the terms that describe the state of someone mentally affected by the events of the battlefield; In the World Wars, it was called ‘Shell-Shock’. In the US/Korean war it was ‘Battle Fatigue’. Now, he complains bitterly, it’s a term ‘drained of all humanity’: ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome’

    Although it is interesting to ponder how the rewording of an affliction or condition can result in a different attitude toward it (for better or for worse), I’m reminded of all of those ‘x’-challenged people, when that sort of language quickly became a sure-fire joke about Political Correctness: He’s not deaf, he’s ‘Hearing Challenged’, she’s not short, she’s ‘Height Challenged’. Finally, it was They’re not Dead, they’re ‘metabolically challenged.’

  5. isabella mori

    i opened all sorts of pandora’s boxes with this post, and thanks for pointing to one of them – political correctness.

    political correctness in its more unpleasant form is nothing but an orwellian cloak for what-shall-not-be-talked-about, reminiscent of victorian “unmentionables”.

    at any rate, what i am trying to point towards here is not some watering-down or covering-up but simply an encouragement to use, on occasion at least, words that are more human (as george carlin points out) and more descriptive of a unique person’s unique experience.

  6. isabella mori

    i opened all sorts of pandora’s boxes with this post, and thanks for pointing to one of them – political correctness.

    political correctness in its more unpleasant form is nothing but an orwellian cloak for what-shall-not-be-talked-about, reminiscent of victorian “unmentionables”.

    at any rate, what i am trying to point towards here is not some watering-down or covering-up but simply an encouragement to use, on occasion at least, words that are more human (as george carlin points out) and more descriptive of a unique person’s unique experience.

  7. ddrucker

    Yes, I suppose the description of an experience has a lot of power: it can hide things we prefer not to talk about, reduce people’s experiences to a generic (inhuman)textbook description, sidestep the social stigma attached to them, or is there another case: redefine what’s normal?

    I keep thinking of (another one of those Pandora’s box items, maybe?)’What’s Normal’,

    Society is so dependent on language, and society determines normalcy. Leaving aside the stickier questions of genius and insanity, I was thinking of those great stories by Oliver Sacks of some of his fascinating patients from ‘The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat’ and ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’, as well as the even more controversial ideas from ‘The Island of the Colorblind’, which talks about the Pacific Island of Pingelap, where a quirk of genes of the population has produced a society in which color blindness is normal. Wow. I guess there, the ability to see color might almost be treated as a kind of hallucination!

  8. ddrucker

    Yes, I suppose the description of an experience has a lot of power: it can hide things we prefer not to talk about, reduce people’s experiences to a generic (inhuman)textbook description, sidestep the social stigma attached to them, or is there another case: redefine what’s normal?

    I keep thinking of (another one of those Pandora’s box items, maybe?)’What’s Normal’,

    Society is so dependent on language, and society determines normalcy. Leaving aside the stickier questions of genius and insanity, I was thinking of those great stories by Oliver Sacks of some of his fascinating patients from ‘The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat’ and ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’, as well as the even more controversial ideas from ‘The Island of the Colorblind’, which talks about the Pacific Island of Pingelap, where a quirk of genes of the population has produced a society in which color blindness is normal. Wow. I guess there, the ability to see color might almost be treated as a kind of hallucination!

  9. David Garnet

    It’s true what you write. These “official” labels for what are often just particular behaviors can also end up emphasizing them, giving them weight and validity, rather than compassionately guiding the behavior toward balance and health.

  10. David Garnet

    It’s true what you write. These “official” labels for what are often just particular behaviors can also end up emphasizing them, giving them weight and validity, rather than compassionately guiding the behavior toward balance and health.

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