As a person who has faced the challenges of both open heart surgery and bipolar disorder, I am all too familiar with the kind of language we use to describe illness. This language ranges from clinical and benign to negative and charged with stigma and discrimination.
My issue, the one I will tackle in this blog, is with the use of the word “issue” when speaking of mental illness.
Of the many definitions of the word issue, two of them apply to this argument:
- A personal or emotional problem (Example: I had issues that prevented me from doing well in school.)
- Any problem or difficulty (Example: Sorry I’m late—I had an issue with parking.)
I fully acknowledge that many people who currently use the word issue when describing a mental illness, for example “Jason is having issues with depression,” are doing so with absolutely zero negative intent or stigma. I also recognize that based on the second bullet above, the definition of issue as “any problem or difficulty” means that to use it in describing a mental illness is, indeed, a correct use of the word.
However, I would argue that there is an inherent, underlying judgement (which derives from the existence of stigma) in this use of issue, and my reasoning is based on a very simple fact. People don’t say “Jason has an issue with his heart,” or “Jason is in the hospital due to issues with lung cancer.”
I believe the reason is, in these contexts, most people understand issue to mean the first bullet definition above, namely “a personal or emotional problem.” And we intrinsically understand that, using the examples above, Jason’s illness with his heart or his lung cancer are by no means personal or emotional problems.
Mental illness, on the other hand, is very commonly lumped in with this category as many people, even if very empathetic and well-intentioned, simply don’t understand the various mental illnesses well enough to know they aren’t personal or emotional problems. This lack of knowledge can create fear, stigma and discrimination, even if only subconsciously. Thus my issue of the use of the word issue, and its subtle but powerful impact.
If you have never had a mental illness, I can assure you that it is a clinical – and very physical – illness with wide-ranging symptoms that cannot be changed simply by sorting out a personal or emotional problem. I tried for 2 years to fight through the symptoms of bipolar without any treatment, and doing so was as wasteful and unsuccessful a strategy as trying to meditate my way to a healthy heart.
Now, imagine hearing that these horrible, life-altering symptoms of mental illness are being described as an “issue,” but a colleague’s virus is a “scary illness.” Sometimes the most subtle (and often unintentional) forms of stigma in our language can be the most hurtful, and the most difficult to change.
I write this blog not to preach, nor to scold anyone who may be using the word issue in this way. I share these thoughts and experiences with the hope that they may help those without mental illness to better understand the challenges caused by even innocent and subtle stigmas.
My issue is not with you, dear reader, even if just yesterday you said “my sister is having anxiety issues again.” My issue is with the use of a perfectly fine word that has, over time, become an unintentional platform upon which stigma can be transferred.
If you agree, and want to stop this use of the word issue, try this simple but effective trick: before saying or writing anything about someone with a mental illness, ask yourself if you would use the exact same language if they had cancer.
About Jason Finucan
Jason Finucan is an inspirational speaker and expert on mental illness and stigma. He shares his personal experiences with both a major physical and mental illness during his impactful keynote addresses and workshops. Jason founded Empower Professional Services to partner with corporations and educational institutions so they may improve their ability to manage the negative impacts of mental illness – ultimately reducing stigma, creating increased knowledge and reducing lost productivity.