The Power of Language


Written by Tochi Onyebuchi

Language can do untold damage. It can also uplift. Particularly in conversations about mental health, a topic so intensely personal but also intensely misunderstood. You can tell how someone feels about the topic by the way they refer to those suffering from mental illness. Crazy, retard, basehead, degenerate, selfish. All of those are slurs people suffering from mental illness have heard flung their way at one point or another. Either that, or they’ve heard them in passing and have realized that if they speak up about their own problems, they’ll make themselves into a target.

All of that needs to change if there is to be any compassionate discourse on mental illness and those affected by it, if there is to be any change in the conversation.

Perhaps the most important change, or the one that has impacted me the most, has been the change from “they” to “I.”

Sometimes, it is someone talking about someone they know. “Those people who cut themselves” becomes “I know someone who cuts herself.” “Those alcoholics” becomes “my brother, who is an alcoholic.” It becomes personal. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “in 2012, there were an estimated 43.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. with any mental illness in the past year. This represented 18.6 percent of all U.S. adults.” That is nearly 1 in 4 adults 18 or older.

It is impossible not to know someone who is struggling.

Sometimes, the change from “they” to “I” is someone confessing to their own struggles. One of my favorite writers is a man named David Milch, a TV writer who wrote for Hill Street Blues, who co-created NYPD Blue, and who has won incredible success in the industry. In interviews, he speaks frankly about his struggles with drugs and alcohol. Corey Taylor, lead singer of Slipknot and Stone Sour, has spoken about his own past drug abuse and previous suicide attempts, often with the message for young people who are suffering that it is possible to get through the darkness, that there is hope. Listening to a hero talk about the things that someone else is also struggling with is perhaps one of the biggest cures for the loneliness that plagues those suffering from some form of mental illness or another.

Confession seems like a tall order, often because it is. But when it comes out, people may begin to realize that, as far as mental illness, there is more that unites us than divides us.

Depiction is its own language as well. Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, growls/whines/wails on “Junkhead,” “What’s my drug of choice?” We have witnessed Nicholas Cage’s cataclysmic hurtle towards oblivion at the bottom of a bottle in “Leaving Las Vegas.” We have the shared despairing of boyhood friends caught in the throes of heroin addiction, an insular world burst open in Trainspotting. We have David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest. We have Malcolm Lowry’s titanic Under the Volcano, which contains the most frightening and personally accurate account of alcoholism I have ever read. The protagonist Consul, in Chapter 3, is caught between one voice inside his head warning him away from a drink and another voice, just as strong, whispering of all the relief to be found in that beatifically chilled glass of whiskey. The Bell Jar, Silver Linings Playbook, Temple Grandin, the list continues.

But for every incisive, non-caricatured interrogation of mental illness on screen, there are a dozen stereotype-reinforcing illustrations. Exhibitionist portraiture that caricatures the mentally ill and paints them in the broad brushes of medical non-compliance, extreme violence, histrionics, intellectually deficient by biological nature. The grain of truth is fertilized with several doses of gamma radiation and we get Hitchkock’s Norman Bates. We get a media landscape where nearly half the televised characters with mental illness have violent storylines. We get the bipolar woman in “Shutter Island” who drowns her children. We get “Sucker Punch,” in which the psych ward patients, dressed in helplessness and escapism and short-skirt sexual exploitation, enjoy fantasies of viciously murdering the abusive staff. Perhaps the portrayal of mental illness most fiercely burned into the space behind America’s eyelids is that of mob boss Tony Soprano. If you are mentally ill on television, violence is very likely the outcome. The medically established truth is that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from any mental illnesses.

On the other end of the spectrum, for lack of a better word, is the savant. We are Russell Crowe’s schizophrenic mathematician, John Nash, Jr., in “A Beautiful Mind.” We are autistic Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.”

Morally reprehensible or morally illiterate.

When, at the 87th Academy Awards on February 22, 2015, screenwriter Graham Moore accepted the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, he spoke briefly and poignantly of his own suicide attempt at the age of 16. Over the course of a few seconds, “they” was turned into “I.”

Words like “crazy” and “psycho” and “retard” alienate. When a sufferer is told to “get it together,” it alienates.

Issues of mental health affect millions directly. And millions more through friends and relatives and colleagues and co-workers and the person standing behind you in line for the bus and the server handing you your plate in the restaurant and the legislator writing laws that will affect your daily life. Mental illness does not discriminate. Not on the basis of race or age or sex or class. And each victim’s struggle with the leviathan is specific to them. One person’s alcoholism is not another person’s bipolar disorder is not another person’s schizophrenia. Even two people suffering from depression suffer differently.

That should be no barrier to our compassion and our attempt to understand.

Listening to Moore’s speech or watching interviews with David Milch or Corey Taylor, each instance was very much like walking through a forest I’d formerly occupied alone, in search of an exit, when suddenly I hear someone up ahead, reciting a poem, leading me towards an exit and am filled once again with the hope of eventual deliverance from the forest and the chance to see the stars, unfettered and glistening above me.

We all know someone who suffers, whether it is ourselves or someone else. It is time we started talking like it.

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