Home » In the News » National Mental Health Awareness Month and the Importance of Language

National Mental Health Awareness Month and the Importance of Language

Every month is Mental Health Awareness Month here at a day with depression, and I’m glad to have the support of President Barack Obama’s proclamation for one month each year.

Among the topics he discusses – care for veterans, reduction of stigma, that “taking action to help yourself is a sign of strength,” etc. – I personally am most grateful for the Affordable Care Act. As a result of this legislation, Fox and I have health insurance that enables us to receive the medication and marriage counseling we need. Around this time last year I felt like our marriage was falling apart. Now we’re working together and supporting each other. Fox has held down a job for 6 months (and counting!). I am less than a week away from completing the last two classes I need for my Master’s degree; after nailing my piano final last night(!) I feel like I’m ready for internship and will be an awesome music therapist.

I have a bone to pick with President Obama, though. His proclamation begins:

This year, approximately one in five American adults — our friends, colleagues, and loved ones — will experience a diagnosable mental health condition […] and many others will be troubled by significant emotional and psychological distress, especially in times of difficulty.  For most of these people, treatment can be effective and recovery is possible.

(emphasis mine)

I wish he would use more inclusive language; that would be a great way to reduce the stigma around mental health issues. The language in this proclamation suggests that mental health issues affect other people, even if “they” are the people “we” interact with every day. It seems like the President is trying to distance himself from the people who live and struggle and sometimes even thrive with these issues. He’s practically saying: “this thing exists and we need to be aware of it – and just to be clear it doesn’t affect me, and I don’t think it affects you.” IMHO, that contributes to the stigma.

I imagine that we’re all in a room, and Mr. Obama is on the stage giving a speech, and I’m in the front row because hey, I’m the one imagining it. He’s talking to me… about me, as though I’m not sitting right in front of him and can’t hear him. I’m probably one of the people who are the happiest to be there listening to him, and yet he’s not really talking to me. I think maybe he’s talking to the person sitting next to me.

However, more than 20% of the people in this room are the population he’s talking about (as though we’re not there listening to him – probably filling the front-and-center seats). The person sitting next to me might feel the same way I do; they probably think I am a member of the President’s intended audience. But neither of us will admit it, because then we’d be marking ourselves as “other” – as not really belonging in that room where “normal” people go to become more aware of us. (How ironic is that?) Instead of connecting with each other, we each go home feeling more isolated than ever. (And the “normal” people go home unaware that we were literally sitting right in front of them.)

What about us? I wish someone would say: “This year, approximately one in five of us will experience a diagnosable mental health condition and many more of us will experience significant emotional and psychological distress, especially in times of difficulty. For most of us, treatment can be effective and recovery is possible.”

That wording makes it sound like mental health issues affect everyone, and needing help with them is normal. If I attended a speech and the speaker said that, I would feel like I belonged in that room. Isn’t that what reducing stigma is all about?

You don’t have to be one of the “one in five” – or the “many more” – to use this language. You just have to be willing to admit – to yourself and everyone else – that you could be. If you’re brave enough to do that, you can help us feel safe admitting that we are. That’s how you let us know we’re “not alone.”


4 thoughts on “National Mental Health Awareness Month and the Importance of Language

  1. I am very glad to have read the whole post. I agree with you. Before I go on I want to say I have an intense dislike for OBAMA.
    That said , I still tried to read the article without bias. (Hard for me to do).

    It is an unemotional speech. The Mental Health Issue IS AN EMOTIONAL TOPIC.
    How can it not be? If a person himself doesn’t feel he /or she has any issues…..I am sure someone close to them does.
    President Obama is President over everyone.. There is no distancing yourself from that.

    I pray, I haven’t just rambled. It’s hard for me to verbalize what I want to say and how to say it. Thank you for sharing this. Have an awesome weekend. Sarah


    • Hi Sarah,

      I agree that it’s important to recognize that mental health is an emotionally-charged topic for most people and to reflect that in the ways we talk about it. I would love to have a president who sets an example for the rest of the country in that regard. It’s great that Mr. Obama is talking about mental health; now I’d like to see him (and other leaders) take it a step further.

      You said, “if a person himself doesn’t feel he or she has any issues… I am sure someone close to them does.” I think that’s the point he’s trying to make: we all know someone who is affected by this issue. We need to be aware and supportive and make sure mental healthcare is accessible to all people. It’s an important message.

      The point I’m trying to make is that we need to make mental health awareness more personal. By saying “we all know someone with mental health issues,” he’s still implying that “we” – the people talking about mental health and who need to be aware – don’t have mental health issues ourselves. It implies that people with mental health issues are all too impaired to participate in the national conversation about mental health. We’re not. We’re here, we’re leading the conversation, and I want people talking about awareness to include us (people with mental health issues) in the “we.” Not “us” vs “them,” just “us.” (Including those of us who are too impaired to contribute via conventional means.)

      In other words, I refuse to be perceived as an outsider or the “other” in a conversation about something that is a central part of my direct experience.

      Finally, I’m concerned that if someone thinks mental health issues affect “people we know” and not “us,” they might have trouble recognising their own symptoms and seeking treatment. What’s the point of awareness if we’re not aware that whatever we’re talking about can directly affect us?

      Anyway, thank you for commenting. I hope my reply clarifies the intention behind my post. I hope you are having a wonderful weekend as well.



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