~ Posted by Rebecca Willis, May 24th 2012
When did it become acceptable, a colleague in the office asked recently, to call men “autistic” if they fail to display a high degree of emotional intelligence? It got me thinking about the way that the terminology of mental health has seeped into our everyday exchanges. As we understand more about how the brain works—or doesn’t—so reference points have emerged which were not in common use ten or even five years ago.
As well as being called autistic, men perceived as unfeeling or regimented are liable to be told they are “on the spectrum” or “left-brained”. Likewise someone restlessly energetic might be called “a bit ADHD”. Busy people have for a while described themselves as “manic”, and now tactless people “have Tourette’s”. Thin women are “anorexic”, even if they were born to be beanpoles. Architects with neat desks and people who fold their socks or have to double-check they’ve locked the door have “got OCD”—and may even, laughingly, describe themselves that way. The word “schizophrenic” is now used to mean changeable or indecisive; a child in tears at the school door is no longer “missing Mummy”, but has “separation anxiety”. And perhaps it is indeed nicer to say “he’s narcissistic” than “he’s a selfish bastard”.
Hyperbole, or exaggeration, has been employed since the days of ancient Greece, which gave us the word—we say we’re "starving” when lunch is late, that we’re “dying” to hear a friend’s news. What changes are the words we are exaggerating with. A few decades ago “mental”, “psycho” or “loony” covered pretty much all forms of strange behaviour, but nowadays we use words which reflect how the science of mental illness has fragmented into various specialities. We are on speaking terms with a whole range of psychiatric disorders, and find them not so strange, but merely different.
In January, David Cameron had to apologise for describing the heckling in Parliament from the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, as “like... someone with Tourette’s”. That he wasn’t apologising to Balls but to people with the condition is a measure of how far we have come from the heartless days when people were often viewed as either "sane" or "insane" and mental hospitals were called “loony bins”. But this shift cuts both ways: having more terms allows us to be more compassionate as we can be specific when we talk about a mental illness or disorder. But it also allows us to be more specific when we are glib and careless. These days, it's a very particular group of people—along with those who share their lives—who are going to feel mocked.