I’m rolling around the idea of a nonfiction book about writing and mental health. This comes from a couple of places. First, many writers I know suffer from various mental health conditions, and would feel inspired by an account of someone prevailing despite headwinds. Second, many non-writers who suffer from similar conditions may be better off if they wrote more, even a journal.

So there’s that. If you find the idea of this kind of book appealing, please let me know by commenting here, or directing other people to this posting. Thanks.

But first, I want to address a terminology issue. Notice, up until this sentence, I haven’t used the term “mental illness”. I wholeheartedly support awareness campaigns like UROK, but I prefer to avoid the term myself. Here’s why:

  1. You might think stigma is a major reason, but it’s actually the smallest concern. “Mental illness” is a stereotype, and because stereotypes short-circuit critical thinking, they’re actively harmful. But they can be defeated with knowledge, patience, and positive communication. Using a different term forces listeners to stop and think.
  2. The term has become a catch-all thought-terminating-cliche. 2015, for example had a record number of mass shootings in the US. An abundance of unqualified commentators have blamed “mental illness” for this, as if the DSM has a listing for Shoots Schoolchildren Syndrome. It’s an easy out to blame just one thing for this, rather than have honest but uncomfortable conversations.
  3. The term focuses on the negative. Whenever possible, I prefer positive terms, such as “mental health” or “wellness”.
  4. The term is overly broad, to the point of uselessness. If someone said, “I’m suffering from physical illness” you might check the calendar to see if somehow you landed in the 1840s. You wouldn’t (usefully) group a cold and colon cancer under the same umbrella, and I don’t think this should be the case for mental health either. There’s a lot that happens on a spectrum, and needlessly lumping everything together causes confusion. In many cases, more specific terms are better.

So what’s a better alternative phrase? I already mentioned “mental health” as well as a few others I’ve used in the text here. It’s an important conversation to have. What do you think? What do you consider a more effective term for discussions, including in a book on the subject?

I’d love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email, micah @ this domain.