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Language, Labels, and Reclaiming Mental Health: Reflections on the 2017 Reclaim Mental Health Conference

In this blog post, I reflect on my experience at the 2017 Reclaim Mental Health Conference and share some thoughts on the power of personal storytelling and the importance of language in mental health advocacy

Language, Labels, and Reclaiming Mental Health: Reflections on the 2017 Reclaim Mental Health Conference
Language holds the key to reclaiming mental health narratives and empowering advocacy

In the spring of 2017, I had the privilege of attending the Reclaim Mental Health Conference hosted by the University of California, Irvine. Over the course of two transformative days, the conference served as a sanctuary for open conversations surrounding mental health, where survivors courageously shared their personal experiences.

The atmosphere was nothing short of inspiring, as each story shared was authentic, enlightening, and deeply moving. However, amidst the powerful narratives, I couldn't help but notice a recurring theme—the speakers, although critical of the mental health industry, relied heavily on the diagnosing language of psychiatry.

In this blog post, I aim to delve into the significance of this language and explore the implications it holds for our understanding and reclaiming of mental health.

Many stories at the Reclaim Mental Health Conference were based on survivors' personal experiences. The conference, which was hosted by the University of California, Irvine, May 6-7, created an amazing, inspiring space for conversation on mental health, and each experience shared was moving, enlightening, and strikingly authentic.

Nonetheless, the speakers—most of whom were in one way or another critical of the industry—freely used the diagnosing language of psychiatry. Some started by introducing themselves with a psychiatric label: “Hi, I’m John/Jane Doe. I have ADHD/Depression/Some Personality Disorder.” Others introduced the terms later, “I still struggle with OCD/Anxiety/Trauma-related Disorder, but….”

As if to validate their experience, they had to ground them in medical terminology. They insisted on referring to the language of professionals.

Even when describing own experiences, one can find it hard to avoid the diagnostic language

Language That Creates a Distance

One of the speakers was a UC Santa Cruz student, Julia Dunn. She presented the panel “Memoir, Mental Health, and (Re)writing Your Story: How I Found Empowerment & Recovery in Creative Writing.” Julia is working on a memoir about her childhood, and in her presentation, she used the materials from her book in progress.

From the pages she read, participants learned that she grew up in the middle of the woods, in the cabins her father built so that nobody could find his wife and daughter. She talked about the rules and policies that guarded her childhood and the isolation she grew up in. Moreover, Julia talked about the student counseling center where she first tried to get help and later served at.

She revealed that many people working there were incompetent to treat students with problems other than school stress and often aggravated the situation. She talked about her activist work to bring more awareness to the issue and to ensure that counselors do simple things like asking about pronouns to use and not making assumptions about people’s experiences.

Though Julia’s presentation was personal and experience-oriented, even she felt it necessary to “medicalize” her story: she talked about OCD, depression, and anxiety in terms of symptoms and treatment. She talked about her own suffering the way a psychiatrist would talk about it as if it was witnessed from outside, as if she did not really know what it felt like.

OCD is so much more than its dry definition: excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). OCD is also the pain that a person suffering from it has to go through.

Who Puts Labels on Our Experiences?

In the last part of her presentation, Julia talked about finding healing in creative writing. She said that being able to tell her own story gave her a sense of empowerment and control over her life.

She said writing a little bit daily helps her save her days “so they don’t slip away unnoticed.” She talked about sharing her pain through her poetry and finding peace in knowing she is in charge of her story. However, isn’t language an important part of any story? And by still clinging to the psychiatric criteria, don’t we continue participating in the discourse that revolves around behavior control? And though it is nice to have a name for mental suffering so the system recognizes it, wouldn’t it be even nicer to have the power to name this suffering ourselves?

As the curtains drew to a close on the Reclaim Mental Health Conference of 2017, I found myself reflecting on the intricate relationship between language, personal narratives, and the power dynamics within the mental health landscape. While the conference provided a much-needed space for survivors to share their stories and find solace in their collective experiences, it also highlighted the ongoing reliance on medical terminology to validate their struggles.

The journey toward reclaiming mental health encompasses not only the healing power of personal storytelling but also the opportunity to redefine the language we use to describe and understand our own experiences.

By challenging the discourse that perpetuates behavior control and embracing the autonomy to name our own suffering, we take a significant step forward in reclaiming the narratives that define us and shaping a future where mental health is understood on our own terms.

"Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley – A Song of Resilience and Empowerment. Today's mood-of-the-post song is aimed at questioning our narratives, "it wasn't because I didn't know enough / I just knew too much."