Does language shape our thinking on mental health?

<a rel= "author" href= "https://plus.google.com/106505108266792061651" >Sarah Eley on Google+</a>A question that has long occupied linguists is whether the language that  we created and use also actually shapes the way we think.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word that equates roughly to accepting life’s imperfections and impermanence. We have no such word. So is that, we ask, because of the Japanese people’s traditional Buddhist connection, which emphasises acceptance, or does having that word in the language somehow change their perception of life and make them more accepting?

The Irish have ‘the Craic’ – does having this word help to propagate the idea that the Irish really know how to enjoy themselves more than the rest of us and if so, does that innate knowledge help them to do so, thus become self-fulfilling?

Words create a sense of community.
If there’s a word for something, it follows that people have a need for that word, because there’s a sufficient number of people wanting to express that idea. We are not alone. If we’re secretly taking pleasure in someone else’s downfall, we have something in common with others, because we know what we are experiencing is ‘schadenfreude’.

I ask these questions because I notice how some words used to describe mental illness are also used to relate to every day emotions. One of the results of this may be that the illness is somehow demoted in importance and therefore is less likely to be considered a ‘real’ condition like appendicitis or a broken arm for example.

Should we mind our language?
Let me be specific. Depression is a debilitating mental illness that robs the sufferer from an enjoyment of life. Inability to enjoy anything at all is a characteristic sign that something is wrong. The person may have a good job, money, a lovely home and a wonderful family, but when depression strikes, the delight in everything is sucked away, leaving them flat and bewildered.

However, we style ourselves ’depressed’ at the news, the new boss, the weather, the price of fish…

I like to look at the latest news about conditions that might be helped by hypnotherapy. I have ‘panic attack’ and ‘phobia’ in my list of googlealerts, which searches for relevant stories containing those words and sends me an email when such stories appear online. But guess what I get? Every day I receive news stories where any kind of fear is blown up into a ‘phobia’ headline, while any sort of worry is termed a panic attack.

Depressed or just plain old sad?
Is it any wonder therefore that depression is sometimes seen as something that people can just ‘snap out of’? If you’re depressed today, you’ll be cheered up tomorrow, right? Wrong. Depressed is not the opposite of happy. People with panic attacks cannot just ‘calm down’. People with phobias cannot just remember that spiders, cats, lifts, whatever, won’t actually hurt them.

The mind’s response to emotional stress is broadly the same, irrespective of whether the cause is ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’. In the same way that a bruise is the body’s response to physical impact, depression, anxiety and phobia are the body’s response to emotional impact.

When we bandy about terms like panic attack, depression and phobia, we should remember that what we actually are is worried, sad or fearful. People with the conditions those names really belong to need the same sympathy, attention and help as people with any physical illness.

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