We – the collective noun in this case being a vaguely accusatory finger pointed at citizens of the “western world” – are really very bad at talking about mental health issues. We either come up with slang terms that succumb rapidly to the euphemism treadmill or we misuse clinical terminology that is itself constantly changing in meaning.
What do we mean when we say we are depressed? Are we talking about an occasional bout of sadness, malaise, or lack of motivation? Something deeper and more lingering? Or the clinical view that some part of our brain’s activity is on the less active side of the bell curve?
And what about anxiety? Anxiety is so complex and interwoven into other mental health issues that I am almost certain nobody experiences it the same or has quite the same triggers.
How many people equate the word schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder? How many people know that this got renamed to “dissociative identity disorder”? How many people are aware of the theory of serotonin in creating a “spectrum” of disorders that have the Autism Spectrum Disorders (autism, ADHD, OCD, Depression, Aspergers and so forth) on the one end and Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders (dissociative identity disorder, borderline personality disorder, psychosis, etc) on the other? Or the fact that quite a few prominent researchers disagree with the link between the two groups of issues?
Mental health issues are huge, complex, difficult to understand and constantly changing. Is it any wonder we’re bad at talking about it?
Despite all of this, precision isn’t always necessary when talking about mental health issues. A huge amount of what needs to be said or understood is simply that there is a problem, the individual involved is aware of it and that they either do or do not need help.
That said, we do need to talk about these issues, and I think abandoning the pretense of precision for a more effective metaphorical approach can and does help in the majority of circumstances. TO this end, I have created the term “mind spiders”. (Though this rapidly got concatenated to Mindspiders, capitalised by users to indicate that it is a proper noun…and somehow made all the more terrifying in the process.) Other insects – bees seem like a good choice to some folks – seem to work just as well. (Personally I like spiders, but I that only adds to the meta of the term Mindspiders and ohlookarabbithole…)
The mental image of a person’s head being filled with spiders does a marvelous job of conveying what many mental health issues feel like, as well as give us many lovely ways to expand upon the terminology to explain what is going on without requiring precision.
If I say “the Mindspiders are unusually active today” you get my drift without a lot of further discussion required. I’m having a bad day due to an unspecified mental health issue. If I say “sorry, I’m taking a few minutes out to placate the Mindspiders” you can fairly easily grok that I’m doing something necessary to achieve a more positive state of mental health.
This is an effective form of communication, even if it does inevitably lend itself to some silliness. In practice, I’ve found that it enabled communication about mental health issues, especially amongst individuals who still have a number of social stigmas and taboos about mental health to work through.
It is important to think not just about what we are attempting to communicate, but how we choose to do it. We are human. We aren’t Vulcans or robots. Sometimes indirection and metaphor make difficult topics easier.
So good luck out there, and don’t let the Mindspiders bite. Or, if they do, bite the little buggers right back.