Crazy talk: rethinking the language we use to describe mental health

The words we use to talk about mental health can perpetuate stigmas. A new portrait project featuring people who have mental health issues aims to make us think again about the language we choose

The words we use to talk about mental health can perpetuate stigmas. A new portrait project featuring people who have mental health issues aims to make us think again about the language we choose

When Jade took a day off work with depression, her employer insisted she tell colleagues she had a stomach bug instead of a mental health problem, lest people got “the wrong idea” about her. The incident stuck with Jade (pictured above), because it reinforced a feeling she often experiences, like she is “hiding a bad secret and always walking on eggshells”.

Although one in four people will develop a mental health problem at some point in their life, we still seem to find mental illness difficult to talk seriously about as a society.

Nine out of 10 people with mental health conditions say the stigma attached to their issue has a negative impact on their life.

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The portrait project Crazy Talk, by Kay Lockett, explores how the language we use perpetuates this stigma, and it does so in a rather novel way. The London-based photographer has paired Jade and nine other people who have a history of mental illness with still life images of food. There’s Alex, for example, who has anxiety and who was called “nuts” by an ex-boyfriend.

There’s James, who says his obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and disordered eating have been trivialised by medical professionals, “who think that I’m bananas for making myself sick”. He developed OCD and depression when he was 14, missing nearly a year of school as a result of his symptoms around cleanliness.

Then there’s Eche, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after being sectioned for three weeks in 2015. His portrait is called Crazy as a Coconut. “My erratic behaviour was seen to be aggressive and was certainly viewed as crazy,” he says. “It’s been difficult to find a balance since then and the changes in mood can be debilitating. Some people don’t consider it to be an illness and think that it can be overcome by ‘digging deep’ and that everybody has ‘ups and downs’.”

“Some people don’t consider it to be an illness and think that it can be overcome by ‘digging deep’,” says Eche

“I wanted to create a series around mental health stigmas – but not in a cliched way,” says Lockett, who was struck by the number of food-related words we use for mental illnesses. She wants to make people think about how lazy, euphemistic terms – like ‘nuts’, ‘crackers’ and ‘bananas’ – trivialise serious conditions.

After issuing social media callouts and contacting mental health charities, Lockett met Hope, who describes anorexia as “this constant battle in my head” and whose portrait is called Jelly Brain; and Suzanne, for whom depression and anxiety have been a “constant presence” in her life.

In a description next to her portrait titled Flaky, Suzanne says: “It makes me incredibly tired, so I’d come home from school and just sleep, anywhere I could. It became a bit of a standing joke in the family. Everyone just took it for laziness and thought I was flaky. Depression is a flaw in chemistry not in character.”

“At times I wobble and lose all sense of control to fight her,” says Hope of her anorexia

Crazy Talk is available on Lockett’s website kaylockett.com and she hopes to exhibit it soon. By raising awareness of the link between language and stigma, she aims to persuade people to think more carefully.

“We’re all guilty of calling someone ‘nuts’ or ‘crazy’ – this series aims to make people think differently about the language they use every day. Even if it just makes a few people think, ‘actually I need to rethink the way I talk about that person, or the words I use’, it’s worth it.”

In photos: Crazy Talk

Alex, 24, Nuts

Ama, 26, Empty

Dave, 29, Fruitcake

James, 28, Bananas

Laura, 24, Crackers

Suzanne, 29, Flaky

Vicky, 35, Donut

Photography: Kay Lockett

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