Let’s Talk: The Language of Mental Illness

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“Bad enough to be ill, but to feel compelled to deny the very thing that, in its worst and most active state, defines you is agony indeed.”

― Sally Brampton, Shoot The Damn Dog: A Memoir Of Depression

So today is Bell’s Let’s Talk Day (There’s also the Time to Talk Day based in the UK on February 6th, not sure why we didn’t all join forces). I firmly believe that talking about mental health is a critical to improving the well-being of individuals and society as a whole. We have gotten a lot better about talking to mental illness and becoming more accepting of those with mental illness, but there’s still an echo of the belief that individuals with more common disorders such as depression and anxiety are “making it up”/”making a problem for themselves” or that they just need to “cheer up” and “stop worrying.” So we have all these campaigns aimed at decreasing stigma and increasing awareness, but our language shows that we haven’t quite reached our goal. Outside the awareness days, we still often make like if we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. If we don’t call it depression it’s not depression. There are at least three problems with this attitude:

  1. It hurts to be ignored. Being ignored while you’re in pain and asking for help really is just salt in the wound.
  2. Ignoring it doesn’t actually make it better. If you ignored the fact that your credit card statement was past due, it wouldn’t suddenly decide to pay itself. No, the consequences would pile up.
  3. The silence is isolating and speaks volumes. If people feel they won’t get help, will be called weak, or had their problems minimized, they will often elect to suffer in silence. This just makes the suffering more lonely and shameful. Doesn’t fix anything.

Fortunately here in Canada, we are working to reduce the stigma and improve access to treatment, albeit we are still lacking services and attention in more rural and northern areas including in Iqaluit and the North-West Territories (for more info click here). Even in areas where there is bountiful access to services, almost half don’t seek help (source). But there are many countries around the world where individuals lack access to desperately needed services. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 75% of individuals worldwide do not have access to the necessary mental health services (source). Problem is that as quickly as we work to break down the barriers, we carelessly build new ones.

The language of mental illness is sort of the problem. Or at least the way we abuse it. 

George Orwell

Have you ever been talking to a friend, describing something really silly or stupid or been miffed by someone’s apparent lack of two neurons to rub together and thrown own the R word? What about had a bad day or been tired and frustrated and declared “Kill me now.” or “I’m ready to kill myself.” Maybe when you realized How I Met Your Mother was cancelled or you suffered another disappointment you declared “I’m so depressed.” Perhaps after watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Fashion Show or seeing a really skinny/beautiful person you sighed to a friend “I wish I was anorexic” or labeled anorexics as “lucky”?

I could go on but I’m pretty sure you get the point. We use this type of language so colloquially and inappropriately that we cheapen it’s meaning. We can’t begin to understand the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of individuals with depression if we apply “depressed” to describe our feelings about minor disappointments, such as being unable to go out on a Friday due to homework or shows being cancelled. We make the person with depression feel silly. We cheapen their suffering. By using labels and terms so flippantly we may as well shout at them

I don’t understand you and I don’t really want to

Additionally,our language shows that we frequently forget that people with mental illness are still people and instead label them as their illness. Their label becomes their identity. Which is one of the fundamental grounds for the debate against using diagnoses – they create a stigma, an identity, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. People have depression, they are not only their depression. This distinction becomes more noticeable in cases such as autism and schizophrenia. In my classes they press upon us the importance when writing of not saying things like “Schizophrenics reported…” or “in a study with autistic children…” reminding us to remember their people-hood and say “Individuals with schizophrenia…” or “children with autism…” It may seem like a silly and minor distinction, but I think that this is critical to changing how we view and treat mental illness as a society. Making people their labels makes their illness their whole world, they have nothing else but their mental illness. 

I don’t pretend to be perfect. You would think I of all people would be more sensitive in this department. I remember in high school when kids made jokes about suicide in my class I went to the bathroom and cried from the painful memories their insensitive jokes had dragged up; horrified that they could be so cruel and uncaring. I do try to be more conscious in my use of mental illness terminology, asking myself, “Would I say this to a person actually suffering from this disorder?” (i.e. would I say “I’m so retarded sometimes” to someone who was mentally disabled?). If I wouldn’t say it to someone who knows what it’s like I try to find a more accurate way of describing my feelings and thoughts, and I challenge you to do the same.

I also challenge you to speak out. If you have suffered mental illnesses before, tell the world without shame – everyone needs help sometimes, you wouldn’t be ashamed to tell someone you broke your leg, or had heart disease. The brain is an organ too, it’s part of our body, and it can break sometimes. If you haven’t suffered from mental illness, odds are you know someone who has – go talk to them, ask them about their experience and how they are doing now, give them a hug and an hour of your time. If you are suffering in silence, go get some help – it doesn’t have to be professional, it can be a friend, or even a helpline – but speak up – shout if you have to and don’t stop screaming until someone gives you the help you need. If someone opens up to you – listen, do SOMETHING, and say thank you, because they trusted you with a very fragile and vulnerable part of themselves, and they trust you to care.

“When you’re drowning you don’t think, I would be incredibly pleased if someone would notice I’m drowning and come and rescue me. You just scream.”

― John Lennon


The Beginning Disguised as an End

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

So the semester is officially over. There will be no more caffeine and will-power fueled discussions when I would sort of rather be snuggled on my sofa watching Grey’s Anatomy. I have no idea where the last three months of my life have gone but I know I learned a lot more and a lot less than I expected. I did not learn the names of more than 3 names in psychology, I did not learn dates and achievements, but I did learn a lot about the world. From within the four walls of LMX219 I have questioned some of my most fundamental assumptions, coming up with a lot more questions than answers, and really only apparently learning that certainty is complete and total bullshit. A thought that should serve me well in life in general.

We’ve tackled some pretty big questions, and as Claude so cogently pointed out – few of us posed questions, most sought answers. For me this only resulted in more questions. But let’s look at the Big Questions Directory:

  1. What is psychology?
  2. What is science?
  3. Is Psychology a science?
  4. What are the flaws with science?
  5. Do we ever know anything?

I was going to source back to the answers to these, but I realized that these were evolving answers, like knowledge in general, as time passed I evolved the answers got into finer detail, brought up the things that really bugged me, like emotions, multiple times. You want my answers? My thoughts still in development? Start here.

What’s really funny for me is that from all the talk of magic and thinly veiled, perhaps unknowing references, the most significant and valuable lesson I learned from this course is that life really is Harry Potter.

No seriously, hear me out.

Gateway to the ShireEvidence:

  • Science was often discussed as magic, don’t believe me – ask Google.
  • Way back, we were told to go home and sit in front of our toilets – why? Because he wanted us to go into the Chamber of Secrets. Or gain access to the Ministry of Magic (I didn’t know the toilets fed into D’Orio and Marion, I thought Marion only had the gateway to the Shire.) Really, which is all a giant metaphor for our access to knowledge and awareness – he wanted us to reveal the dirty, messy truth of life
  • There was talk of divination
  • Science does a lot of stuff that no one knows how – they just do it.
  • The scientists hide away in their secret labs – kind of like Hogwarts no?
  • Herbology = botany, potions=chemistry, charms = physics; best of all – History and Systems = Defense Against the Dark Arts, complete with a Claude-Lupin parallel.
  • My cross-cultural prof and forensic psych profs both brought up Harry Potter completely unprovoked – cross-cultural pointed out how strange it would be if he walked in in the robes like they wear in Harry Potter.
  • There are certain behaviours that are often classed as unforgiveable – just like the unforgiveable curses – for example, we don’t like psychopaths, because they try to control us (ahem, Imperio!) and am I the only one who classed Voldemort as a psychopath?! We’re also not such big fans of murderers or people who knowingly make people suffer pain. When thinking of the big unforgiveables in society, really those are the big universals
  • taken from teeturtle.com

    taken from teeturtle.com

    Look at the four houses – they are based on core personality traits and diagnostic categories – Slytherin for example are quite obviously the psychopaths, Ravenclaws are extremely smart (IQ), Griffindor are the highly loyal and brave, and then there’s Hufflepuff, which I could probably label too but really function as comic relief, they are the opposite of Ravenclaw

  • Notice how Harry’s mother’s love provided a shield against evil, not saying science is evil, just that traditional magic (science) could not account for the old magic (love and emotions) much in the way that I have argued that the area that science cannot explain is love and emotions.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

Moving on.

While I intend to continue on with this exploration and questioning, both from my notes as well as from readings of material that provoke more question, I feel like I should at this point go over some closing thoughts for the course. Because let’s face it, from here I have no idea what I am doing or how I’m going to do it. I am however working on pieces on emotions and on what the brain does, so check back in the coming weeks!

A general discrepancy between what science should be and what it is was present in most of the course, and now that I am reflecting back on the course, that was the ultimate point.

The difference between what is and what should be – the failed expectations.

See science is lovely, in theory, it works out perfectly, it is a very powerful system if it works but the problem is that it essentially relies on assumptions. Like I talked about – it measures a few singularities and then leaps to the general. Which is somewhat logical – the classic “If Socrates is a man and all men are mortal then Socrates is mortal.” But the problem is that we don’t really know anything, we just pretend to.

Then life gets in an muddles everything.

Science tries to eliminate emotions, to eliminate humanity to a degree because it mutates what is potentially an all powerful system into a believable, but vulnerable, system – it creates flaws that dent its utility. Just like us. What surprises me is how science tries to deny its flaws. It expects to be rational, it labels emotions, the essence of humanity, as irrational or problematic for some other reason. Essentially, it seems to me that scientists attempt to pathologize humanity in an attempt to deify itself – to perfect our exploration and development of knowledge. Accepting that we cannot be completely unbiased, that emotions colour everything (perhaps the source of the colour associations with emotions? Just a thought), then you have to accept that our expectations are baseless and we are helpless to find reality and truth.

But see the thing is that just because we might be wrong, doesn’t mean we cannot be right. It just means that you should not be too convinced that you have found a truth unless you are prepared that you may have found nothing more than a stepping stone, a false truth.

We become frustrated in life when what we expected to happen fails. We want to believe we are as powerful as our thoughts. We come equipped with all this big beautiful brain power, we have the capacity to understand limitless possibilities, imagine things that don’t exist yet. But I was watching Grey’s Anatomy last night and an interesting thought came up

“We’ll try again, and we’ll going to fail again, because that’s what progress looks like.”
“Progress looks like a dead sheep?”
“No, progress looks like a bunch of failures.”

Word. Thanks Grey’s. And my parents told me TV rots your brain. Pft.

calvin-and-hobbes ontologicalThis course has allowed me to question everything I know, even the things I didn’t know I didn’t know. This has not weakened my faith in psychology, one course could not do that. It has given me an appreciation for the issues and complexities and has taught me that this is the tragedy of human life. We come equipped with the power to learn anything, but we are limited by time, our existing knowledge, and the currently available explanations.

We talked about science versus art versus … something else? And I realized that science, because it believes in its methods, when it fails blames the technology, when it can’t find an answer it’s because the technology, the tools, have not developed enough to meet the ideas of the scientist’s mind. Art doesn’t really fail per say, except perhaps in trying to convey the message, except, art is almost more about what you do see than what you were supposed to see. Art does not have an expectations necessarily, it is developed over time, and what comes out of it, appreciated by the artist, if they really hate it, it’s their fault, or maybe just a lack of inspiration, a lack of a light inside themselves. Then there’s the grey areas like psychology. I hate to call it an art, because I think in society’s mind that makes it less legitimate, but it’s not always as cold and methodical as science, it requires more intuition and humanity than that. See when science fails it blames the technology, but if psychology does the same – it blames the technology, for me that says that all humanity is the same. It denies that it failed not because the technology doesn’t exist but because the same patterns cannot be found because humanity is not a set of carbon atoms (well we are. But not really. At least for me. I am sure the Brain Campers would have something to say about this) – so we’re not going to be identical, patterns are going to be harder to find, expectations more frequently denied. End game? Psychology is a science in it’s methods, but an art in its conclusions and applications.

In understanding expectations versus reality I realized how this explains everything.

Depression becomes a realization that our expectations and reality don’t match.

Schizophrenia, a refusal to accept this.

Anxiety, a fear that because of this we are not the foolproof dieties we want to be. A realization that our brain allows us to imagine beyond our lifetime, but that we have a lifetime.

Science, an attempt to deny this, by rigidly controlling how we make expectations.

Art, the realization and expression of this beauty and pain through some medium – baring our humanity to the world.

Psychology an attempt to figure out what this expectation-reality discrepancy means to us, and attempt to accept it and bring peace to our existence.

We can’t be perfect. Life isn’t perfect. Sometimes things go horribly and painfully wrong. And there is nothing we can do about it. The problem of science is the same problem humanity has faced for years – the problem that we are stuck in this loop of thinking we know and then realizing that we don’t. This is life and the course and this is my realization of the course. The last AHA! Moment of the semester!

I’ve still got a fair amount of material I’m working on, but I’d love to hear from you. Send me your suggestions, let me know what you think.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

― Voltaire

Generally Speaking? Growth, Education, and Flaws of Generalities

“The curious thing about individuals is that their singularity always goes beyond any category or generalization in the book.”

― Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes

We are now on the verge of discussing what exactly psychology is, but first we must wrap up the generalities discussion. At the beginning of the discussion the question was raised – what is the problem with generalities? At the moment I had no answer. I just spent the last two months thinking about generalities and if predicting was truly all our minds are aiming to do. I just finished building my understanding of the utility of generalities. This was not a foreign word to me – a know a general definition, but I apparently understood very little of its uses and implications. If I now understand the concept and use of generalities at a deeper and more pervasive level, what flaws has this understanding exposed?

  1. Generalities can make us blind and deaf. If we presume to know all that is needed to be known about something we may fail to delve deeper – we may miss the less obvious details that could disprove our application on that generality. We assume that we know so we don’t look further. Life’s full of surprises, sometimes you have to expect the unexpected, but our knowledge of how things should be may make us miss out on details, which are readily available. As we’ve discussed, we cannot perceive in isolation, independent of any thought process, our expectations guide what we see, and if we rely too heavily on those expectations we don’t look carefully enough.
  2. Generalities inform us of what should be, not necessarily what is. In the context of individuals this has the highest risk of error. Have you ever stood on a bus and saw someone and made an instant judgement about them, presumed you knew everything about them? It happens all the time. We see a guy with tattoos on his neck and arms, and a doberman by his side and assume he’s a no good punk, maybe involved in a lot of illegal activities – that’s the generality society has generally taught us. I actually know a man fitting this description – he comes into my work all the time with Cane (a very docile doberman) specifically with the aim of breaking down the stereotype. In reality the dog is the sweetest you could ever see, and the guy actually works in an office environment. He pays taxes, he volunteers on weekends, a fine upstanding citizen. He just happens to have tattoos. If you let your generalities guide you – you never get to see these details, and you never learn to update your generalities, or that with people generalities have very limited utility.
  3. Generalities may be misguided. If the specifics or the thought process (I avoid calling this logic since we’ve already concluded that induction is alogical) is flawed or inaccurate, the generality too will be entirely flawed. Maybe you are basing your generalities on what you thought you saw, not what was. Or maybe you’re basing your generalities entirely on third party information – your cousin went to Thailand and told you about how the Thais are and now you have developed cognitive schemas about Thais without having any first hand experience. What if your cousin’s actions influenced the behaviour of the Thais? Or you rely on popular public opinion, without any exposure, even through those you intimately know, you guide your behaviours based on what your culture tells you is reality.
  4. You include specifics that aren’t there. You see one detail, and due to the nature of schemas and generalities – this automatically means the other details are there without you necessarily having any proof.

If we think we have understood something, we will not seek out a better understanding, we stop entertaining alternative explanations and imagining possible situations. It is only when we accept that our generalities are inherently flawed due to the logic used to derive them, that we can potentially come to a better understanding.

To put this in a basic context – if I believe I have found THE BEST cookie recipe – why would I try making other recipes? Why would I experiment with the ingredients? The only reason I would continue to try out different combinations is if I believe, despite the fact that the last ten recipes have not measured up to my criteria for better recipe, that it is hypothetically possible that a better recipe exists – if I believe that my Theory of Cookie Greatness can be disproved. If I accept that my knowledge of the relative quality of cookie recipes, could be flawed or incomplete, I may eventually find a better cookie recipe, or I may come to believe more strongly that I have found the best already. In case you can’t tell, yes, I am craving cookies.

There does reach a limit to how many times we can check if some theory is right, at which point we accept that the theory or state of the world is likely enough. Doesn’t mean that we will refuse to believe that the opposite is possible, but we accept that the former is more likely. For example, snowflakes are generally accepted as being unique. As I child I remember being told that no two snowflakes are alike. My childhood investigative skills lead me to lay outside one recess examining all the snowflakes that fell. After about 30, of which 29 melted before I could properly examine, I accepted that the teacher was right.

canadian-archaeological-dig-39442As an adult, I can imagine why – each point in time and space has unique conditions.In a storm cloud there may be very similar conditions, resulting in a flurry of snow, but given all the possible variations – each point in that storm cloud and the space through which the snow falls, would have different conditions that would affect the crystalization. Thus, each snowflake being unique seems logically possible. Can we and should we check each snowflake? No. The data collection here in Ottawa alone would be overwhelming. Just like we have not collected every human being’s fingerprint, not even all the twins fingerprints, but we accept that fingerprints are unique, so is DNA (except for identical twins – the exception to the rule). We haven’t collected all the data, but we accept that we have collected enough to make the generality warranted. What if it wasn’t? But we thought it was – well someone may be wrongly imprisoned. Again, logic comes to the rescue – it truly is a marvel though when you think about the potential diversity on a single chromosome – billions of base pairs combine – don’t even ask me to compute the number of theoretical combinations, it is beyond my capacity. The sheer number of possible combinations, serves to bolster our acceptance, that it is feasible that everyone has unique DNA.

If a child thinks they understand how it rains, why would they continue asking questions? Curiously, it is our refusal to accept our understanding of the world. It is our saying “I am missing something.” that leads us to seek out more knowledge, our acceptance that our generalities may be flawed.

“Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”

― Mark Twain

Dr Lamontagne raised the argument that the education system is damaging, that it takes away our ability to understand things on our own. While I somewhat accept that it stifles creativity, or at best places conditions and requirements on it, I disagree that it takes away our ability to understand things on our own, I argue instead that it gives us more information to use in our development of our understanding. Yes, I hate the system of rote memorization, but to a degree we need that – do you want a doctor who has been vigorously assessed for concrete proof that he knows medicine, or do you want a doctor who explored cadavars until he came up with an understanding of anatomy – we don’t have time to explore these things. We need to know that people know these things, and certain types of knowledge cannot really be discovered simply by thinking about it and toying around with your understandings.

I understand where he is coming from – if we are told what we need to know, and strict criteria are established to determine if we do know, how are we to find the gap in our knowledge? If they are always pointed out how can we learn to find them on our own? To which I counter – if we have accepted our understanding as sufficient, why would we try to continue to learn? The education system says no – you need to know more. Maybe the methods, i.e. grading, are flawed, but if you take a more positive view and focus less on the grades and more on whether the student demonstrates understanding (which I think he suggested at the beginning of thw course – a sort of pass/fail system), the system works quite well. Albeit often it teaches you things only to later tell you that what it previously taught you was wrong. Perhaps this inadvertently shows us the fragility of our generalities and knowledge. Which is perhaps what drives students (intrinsically) to university. While I would guess that a large number simply go because they know that to get a job it’s probably a good idea. We still are responsible for choosing programs though, and we choose them based on what we want to learn more about. Or it could just be wanting to go somewhere in life, even if it’s only out of town.

Without formal education there are many things children would never learn. There are also a lot of things that with only school, a student would fail to learn – I have met a number of individuals in my university career, and in general who are incredibly smart, but also incredibly stupid when it comes to things in real life. Usually it’s the science kids and the engineers who are blinded by their scientific knowledge. Science isn’t everything, maybe science argues that something should be the case, but there are many instances where life says no. And sometimes science isn’t even needed.

I come from a small town, I grew up before the dawn of Google, before there was an answer for everything at my fingertips. I understand and have learned much more in the field of psychology, science, and mathematics than anyone in my family – I am the first to attend university. Coming from a small town I had no access to advanced academics, or museums – my high school only have ONE course in psychology – it was combined with anthropology and sociology. I have knowledge now that cannot really be intuitively derived – for example the structure and activity of the brain. Without the education system I am now a part of, I would have never been exposed to the advanced biology, chemistry, or the world religions in such an in depth way (thought that was more a product of learning outside the classroom – point 1 for Dr Lamontagne, but if you think I’m joking, I came from such a all-white-all-Catholic community that at the time we had to drive an hour to get to a mosque). Thus the education system has given me access to areas of knowledge I never would have been exposed to.

At the same time, I see the risk of taking the information or present understanding at face value – what if false information is presented, if we are not presented with all the views when controversy exists, or if we stop trying to learn more? Many of my first year science courses started with “forget everything you learned in high school. It’s basically wrong anyways.” Which always made me wonder why they taught it to us in the first place. Of course, thanks to our newly constructed conception of knowledge – I can see that we cannot understand everything at once, so we build it up slowly, almost paralleling some sort of phylogeny or ontogeny.

We build up our knowledge knowing that at some point it will probably be knocked down, because having some level of understanding is better than having no understanding. Just as I could not understand the true implications of generalities without first understanding the flaw with knowledge and objectivity. So maybe our understanding is flawed, but as long as we keep trying to understand it better, we’re doing okay.

Returning to the education system argument – I cannot find fault with a system that has allowed me access to so many ideas. Maybe I hate the tests, and maybe a lot of my learning has occurred outside of a classroom, but it has occurred because professors exposed me to the knowledge that made me question my previous understanding, they showed me things I didn’t even know were a thing. We are caught up in a system that relies on grades, but that doesn’t mean that the end game is flawed. Most of my professors grade only because they have to, but I have had some pretty amazing professors who have been so passionate about the material that you know it’s not because of the grades – it’s because they care.

So in short – do I hate the grades? Sometimes yes, but as an overachiever, I need some way to measure my progress. Maybe I’m mostly okay with this system because I usually do well in it, but I also see the benefits this system has given me that my own cognitive explorations would not have given me.

The more I think about it, the more I see that though the process may have flaws, the end result is still good in most cases. Could I have gone to a library and read endless volumes of psychology until I understood it perfectly? Maybe, would I have done so necessarily? Maybe eventually, but the education sets a timeline for me to make sure I stay on track. I keep what I need and research further what interests me – it’s the whole point of my thesis, my aim to research in the future. Maybe the process isn’t ideal, but it brings me to a place where I can be a lifelong learner, even if it is simply in the form that I leave with slightly more knowledge than I came with and a piece of paper that says I’m allowed to keep at it.

So a lot went on here. I debated the utility of generalities and came to the conclusion that they’re useful but not perfect – use with caution. I argued why we continue to explore – why recognizing the flaws of generalizing is useful for growth. And I defended the education system, that admittedly drives me nuts at times, but still exposes me to more information – more fuel with which to question what I know.

What do you think? Are generalities so flawed that we should do away with them entirely? Or are the singularities too numerous to be useful anyways?

“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”

― Jacob BronowskiThe Ascent of Man