Clumsy language? “Guilty, as charged, M’lud”. As guilty as the next woman or man. Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith declares himself not a “lunatic” on the same day that an elderly man suffering from “delusions” is sentenced to six years in prison for killing his wife. I feel slightly guilty about raising the subject in the first place because the last thing we want to do is introduce the “speech police” to monitor what everyone says at any one time. Smith didn’t mean to say that he was not mentally ill – which strictly speaking, he did say – but when the BBC referred to the man suffering from “delusions”, they meant that he was suffering from a condition called Paraphrenia, an older person’s version of Schizophrenia. It’s a tricky area, isn’t it?
I give you another example of who this can play out on a day to day level. It is hardly a secret that I am strongly opposed to Jeremy Corbyn being leader of the Labour Party and I was accused on social networks of being “deluded”. I am assuming my accuser was not suggesting that I was mentally ill and suffering from delusions (although he would have been half right) so I bit my tongue and got on with life. I have heard and indeed said much worse and I chose on this instance not to make a fuss about it. If I thought if it was remotely threatening, I’d have made something, maybe quite a lot, out of it.
But then, I have friends who use the word “lunatic” and “mental” as part of their normal vocabulary. It is not being intentionally disrespectful of those with mental health issues. It’s how people have described things and how they’ve always described things. I see this language thing as a kind of evolution.
In matters of colour and race, we rarely use the N word or the P word and are shocked when someone does. Gradually, not through laws or prohibition, certain words and phrases became unacceptable. I remember attending cricket matches when the use of the N word was not just widespread, it was deemed as acceptable.
So, who can effect a serious change in order to gradually refine how we refer to people without coming across as imposing and bullying? By challenging instances, as gently and responsibly as we can. Obviously we do not tread carefully when serious incidents take place – we have laws to deal with that – and sometimes there is an imaginary line which we know we should not cross, but generally we learn to self-police.
Owen Smith should probably not have said he wasn’t a “lunatic” and to date I have shown no symptoms of suffering from delusions. You’ll be the first to know if I do, assuming I am indeed aware.
Clumsy language, probably no big deal almost all of the time. As mental health loses its stigma – and that may take decades – things will gradually right themselves.