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Mind

I'm Bipolar, You're a Schizophrenic

NeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticApril 25, 2010 7:00 PM

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Over at Comment is Free, Beatrice Bray takes issue withthis cartoon (for those who don't follow British politics, the guy on the right is trying to win an election at the moment.)

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The use of the word "psychotic" was offensive. You may think this political correctness gone mad, but if you are ill, or have been, you need words to describe your experience to yourself and to others. If for you these words are negative, you will hate yourself. Language can make or break your happiness. That is why mental health activists do not like psychiatric terms being used as abuse...

Hmm. Fair enough... but why would a sick person care if people insulted their illness? Cancer patients don't seem to be offended when things are called "a cancer on our society" or whatever, because not many cancer patients like cancer.

Maybe the clue is later on:

And please allow individuals an identity apart from their illness, so always say "a person with schizophrenia" rather than "a schizophrenic".

So the problem is that unlike cancer patients, the mentally ill aren't seen as people separate from their illness. That is a serious issue - but getting offended by someone using "psychotic" as a term of abuse surely only reinforces the idea that sufferers identify with it?

In fact, a lot of people with psychiatric illnesses don't follow Bray's advice when talking about themselves. "Bipolar", for example, is commonly used to describe people, rather than their illness - and many bipolars do this... bipolar people... people with bipolar disorder. Whatever.

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On Google, "I'm bipolar" gets 247,000 hits and "I am bipolar" gets 235k, so that's about 500k in total. "I have bipolar" gets 576k - so "having" and "being" are about equally popular.

Likewise for schizophrenia, "I have schizophrenia" gets 174k, but "I'm schizophrenic" gets 136k, and

"I am schizophrenic

"31k - almost equal again."I'm a schizophrenic"

gets 465k, mainly because of a movie, however if you

exclude those you still get over 100k.

So if mental health activists want to reform the way we talk about mental illness, it's not just the "them" of the general public who need bringing into line. But I've never been convinced that changing what words people use about things like this is a good way of changing minds: it's an easy way to create the appearance of doing so, but actually changing minds is hard, and I don't think language reform is even a good first step.

You don't change minds by telling people to please change, you make them change by showing them examples of why they're wrong. If your aim is to convince that schizophrenia happens to people and doesn't define them, a movie like A Beautiful Mind (or more recently perhaps Shutter Island, although it takes a lot of artistic license with the symptoms of psychosis) is worth a thousand word-changes.

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