As I will demonstrate below, I make no claim to limiting myself to politically correct terminology. However, here’s an important memo to self: Whenever applicable, use the term “mental injury” instead of “mental illness.”
During the past decade, my work in the realm of workplace bullying has provided an education in psychology and psychiatry. This has included plenty of hanging around those who study, diagnose, and heal the damage caused by psychological abuse at work. It has had a transformative effect on how I look at the law and public policy.
But my informal course of study has been far from thorough or systematic, and consequently I’m still learning the vocabulary. And oftentimes I use the term mental illness when mental injury strikes me as being much more appropriate.
Illness vs. injury
When someone is wounded by a gunshot, do we say they are “ill”? No, we say they are injured.
But what happens when, say, someone experiences violence or bullying at work so terrible that they develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Well…we’re more apt to say they’re suffering from a mental illness or disorder.
And yet, haven’t they, too, suffered an injury, a psychological trauma? So why do we use terms that unnecessarily stigmatize the person who suffers that injury?
What’s “abnormal” psychology?
While I’m at it, I also find myself questioning the term “abnormal psychology.” Writer and educator Kendra Cherry defines the term this way:
Abnormal psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with psychopathology and abnormal behavior. The term covers a broad range of disorders, from depression to obsession-compulsion to sexual deviation and many more. Counselors, clinical psychologists and psychotherapists often work directly in this field.
Here again, a similar point: So many conditions labeled “abnormal” — such as depression triggered by situations in one’s life — strike me as being natural responses to difficult experiences and setbacks. (And on the extreme end, there’s nothing abnormal about suffering PTSD after doing two tours of duty in Iraq.)
Unnecessarily stigmatizing terms
Over the past decade, some of the most insightful and empathetic people I’ve met include those who have suffered from depression, PTSD, and other conditions triggered or exacerbated by horrible experiences at work.
By contrast — with apologies for my lack of precise terminology — some of the most screwed up, uptight people I’ve ever met would likely get clean bills of health from therapists or psychiatrists.
Terms like “mental illness” and “abnormal” scare people. They create in our minds a fearful Other. My friends holding doctorates in psychology may have plenty of good reasons to tell me I’m wrong, but I’d really like us to think about how we use these labels.