Language has so much power. While in college, I had to take a linguistic anthropology class, which was as boring as the name suggests and seemed like a tremendous waste of my time. I admit that I was a terrible student in that class and spent 90% of my time on Facebook or reading pointless articles, thus I probably missed many profound moments with that specific professor… until the very last day of class. On that day, I had actually forgotten my laptop at home and was forced to pay attention to the knowledge being dropped upon the class- I feel very fortunate that I did. My professor ended the course with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein…
“The limits of my language means the limit of my world.”
Think about that one for a minute. Have you ever tried to explain something to a toddler? At times, it can feel impossible because the scope of their language feels so small and limits how you can describe, explain, and teach them. Language has so much power over our way of understanding, our way of defining the world around us. That is why it is critical to start using the right words when tackling mental illness. There is so much power, so much freedom in language.
For example, I recently found myself wedged in the middle of a conflict between someone close to me and their parents. I like to think that I know the person quite well and am able to have open, genuine conversations with them. They know my story… they helped me find the confidence and vulnerability to share it with others. I know that they sometimes struggle with depression as well. We can talk about our good days and our bad days… mental illness is a conversation topic we do not shy away from. Yet the same cannot be said about my friend’s relationship with their parents. The word ‘depression’ is somewhat taboo. Instead, they refer to feelings and behaviors as “moodiness”.
I get it. Sometimes depression can manifest itself in ways that others may perceive as “being moody”. Sometimes I describe myself as moody AF, a result of my lingering teenage angst coupled with a ongoing love for My Chemical Romance and Panic at the Disco. But reducing depression to simply moodiness creates a host of problems that can cause great harm to the sufferer. When people complain that someone is moody, they may tell them to change their attitude or (if you are a woman) they may ask you if it is ‘that time of the month’. Depression is an illness, not an attitude choice. It can seriously impair daily life and should not simply be reduced to PMS or moodiness or having a gloomy outlook.
For when we use the wrong language, we transform the power to get better into stigma and shame. Instead of being able to seek help for a treatable mental illness, sufferers may become hard on themselves, feel embarrassment, and exacerbate an already difficult situation. As my professor once explained, language can limit our world… but it can also liberate us. Say its name- depression.