It’s bittersweet to see more and more mainstream news outlets cover mental health issues (a step in the right direction) but while using language that perpetuates stereotypes and stigma.
A recent NST headlines screamed : “[Exclusive] Overworked souls risk going mental and dying early”.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “Going mental” as informal phrase that means : Lose one’s self-control, typically as a result of anger or excitement. That’s probably not what NST means though, given that the opening statement of the article read: “Those who constantly work more than eight hours a day are at risk of developing mental health issues.”
The media is extremely powerful and is consumed by millions of people every day. Therefore, we would encourage journalists to recognise the influence they have when reporting on mental health so as not to reinforce damaging stereotypes or create sensationalist articles which can cause huge distress and offence to the one in four people who will experience mental health problems.
Going mental is not the same as developing mental health issues.
Going mental is a pejorative term that perpetuates the stigma that mental health issues is equivalent to going “crazy” or losing self-control.
Mental health issues such as depression or anxiety is not about losing self control or going “crazy”. Mental health issues results from a complex interaction of biological and psychological factors, which leads to significant impairment in important areas of life.
No one says going physical.
The media is not alone in this. Across party lines, politicians use mental illness as a means to discredit a political opponent or those whom they disagree with. For instance, Ampang MP, Zuraida Kamarudin recently referred to statement made by Prime Minister Najib as an example of statements made by someone with a mental illness. In 2015, during a bitter political struggle, MIC vice president Datuk M. Saravanan called for former president Datuk Seri G. Palanivel to be stripped of his cabinet post immediately, saying that Palanivel should be “sent for psychiatric treatment. He is a mental fellow with serious mental disorder”. The list goes on.
We need to stop using mental illness as an insult. Clearly saying that someone has a broken leg does not carry the same negative connotations as saying someone is “mentally unsound”. Calling someone is mentally unsound implies that we should not listen to such a person, and that person is crazy. We should distance ourselves from that person. It is not meant to conjure up feelings of compassion or empathy. The use of the term in such contexts perpetuates negative associations of mental illness and negative behaviours towards people who have a mental illness.
Speaking rightly about mental illness is a step to thinking and acting rightly about mental illness. It’s time to change.