After weeks of research, the project had now come to the point where it was necessary to shift the focus to developing a single, refined problem within the immensely broad topic of mental health. For me, the language surrounding mental health in media dialogue has been a particularly provocative issue, and hence has informed most of my research thus far. To inform the development of potential design proposals which would respond to this issue, it became crucial to write out precisely which factors are pivotal to its existence.
Who – journalists, television/radio presenters (news and entertainment), producers/editors of productions/publications, doctors, medical practitioners, medical/scientific researchers
What – the problem is bound in outdated understandings of mental health, which are based on a lack of existing/developed scientific knowledge. A basic understanding of the role and importance of the brain is a very recent scientific discovery, especially when viewed within the grander context of human history. The continuation of this boundary is facilitated by inconsistent education systems and differing cultural customs.
When – the problem begins from a child’s developing years as they come to understand the world based on the teachings of others and personal experiences. The problem is often present in any discussion mentioning mental health. Such discussions are not necessarily verbal, but can also be communicated through disbelieving glances or scoffs, as well as the developing digital language of emojis, acronyms, hashtags and gifs.
Where – In conversation between friends or strangers, in televised/broadcasted discussions/commentaries, in published articles (academic, news-focused, topical or opinion-based), in comment sections across all forms of digital platforms (i.e. blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook), in advertisements (print and digital), and also in film (discussion point or core plot/character development).
Why – The existence of careless and uninformed language around mental health promotes the continued prevalence of stigma through society. This in turn limits the availability of services for those in need, as well as further research into the field. Such limitations are a result of inequitable government funding and poor charity funding, since the general public is less invested in the importance of mental health when compared to physical health. Furthermore, these societal perceptions inhibit the willingness of individuals to be open about their problems and seek help, or the ability of those who are actively seeking help to feel accepted and not ‘other’.
These responses were then utilised to discuss potential design proposals that would respond to the problem within an emergent practice context. But, as is the way with most group discussions, time ran away with us and we didn’t manage to spend an equal amount of time brainstorming each person’s direction. As a result I was unable to make much headway with actual design responses. Instead it became clear that whilst language was clearly an avenue I wished to pursue, its particular usage in reporting crime was not a direction I wished to focus on. Without a more specific focus than the language around mental health it was difficult to gain beneficial feedback from my group.
The brainstorm did however enable me to consider a broader range of concepts focused on language, such as;
- Responsibility of language
There is an inherent responsibility attached to the use of language. As professionals, but also as humans, journalists and television presenters must have an awareness of the significance and impact of their words. Specifically as professionals there is also an expectation for a level of truth and authenticity behind statements made. Despite this, mental illness is often mentioned in association with a broad range of behaviours, without any substantiating evidence or expertise.
- Society’s reluctance to openly discuss mental health
Throughout society it continues to be rare for a person to openly speak about their mental health with others, regardless of whether they are family members, partners, close friends, colleagues or employers. A sense fear and shame is still attached to talking about such topics. For many it is still seen as an ‘admission’, a term which inherently implies a level of fault, culpability or inappropriateness.
- Colloquial language demeaning validity of mental health
A lack of awareness continues in regards to the negative impact of certain phrases and terms upon mental health sufferers, who find their struggles are demeaned, disregarded or trivialised. Some commonly used terms I’ve come across throughout the semester are; Schizo, Emo, #IGetDepressedWhen, ‘That’s depressing’, ‘Chin up’, ‘You’ll be right’, and ‘Suck it up’.
- Updating terminology in accordance with new medical discoveries
Unsurprisingly, our medical knowledge of the brain is constantly evolving in accordance with advances in technology. Alongside this, our understanding of how the brain works on a psychological level is also changing over the years. This however has not been reflected in the manner in which society in general regard mental health. Outdated terms such as manic depression and multiple personally disorder are still commonly used. More than this, the distinction between various forms of mental illness are not commonly understood and utilised – both professionally (outside the field of medicine) and personally.
- Respectful use of hashtags
One of the most challenging research methods thus far has been the web scrapping exercise in which I experimented with several search terms and filters on Twitter to produce a data-set. The reason for this was the total disregard or empathy for others displayed by many online. Having individual ideologies and philosophies throughout life is part of what makes us humans, but expressing this is not mutually exclusive with the respecting opposing arguments.
Unsatisfied with the progress I’d made in class, I returned to both the Five W’s exercise and the task to concisely define a problem within mental health. This resulted in the summarised statement “uninformed, inaccurate understandings of mental health (and its implications on the choices and lives of individuals) being perpetuated by thoughtless, inaccurate or prejudiced language in media”.
When quickly writing this in my notebook I hadn’t put much thought into my specific choice of words, and it was the word ‘choice’ that struck me. I realised that the use of such a word in relation to mental health was instantly infuriating.
Draft Design Proposal
Choice is a particular term, which when used in direct association with mental health often angers, frustrates, confuses, upsets and worries me. I am a long time sufferer of mental illness, and over the years have become fairly resolved to the reality of my life, accepting the presence of some difficulties and not believing they make me a lesser person. And yet, despite all of this, that word evokes a kaleidoscope of emotions and thoughts that demeans my self-belief. To me, it is a judgmental word. A word that, in this context, comes from a place of poor understanding, prejudice and sometimes even cruelty. To me, it implies that I am a burden for my difference and that I am selfish for allowing such a burden to exist.
A design response to this word and its problematic usage could focus on the inaccurate, yet widely spread, notion of choice being a defining factor in mental health. Handwritten notes of those who are directly impacted by mental health could be collected and presented as a generative system. These statements would all begin with “I do not choose…” or “They do not choose…”
It is crucial to also offer this response to include “They” as sufferers of mental health issues do not exclusively hold awareness over the everyday realities of living with the illness. Close friends, family members and other immediate relationships, each have their own perspective over the impacts of the illness.
Anyone with experience of mental health would be asked to offer their response beginning with the aforementioned statements. People can use any medium they wish to write out their notes. The only visual requirement would be for the note to be handwritten. This is important because each person will have a unique style of writing – both linguistically and stylistically. This unique quality attaches a human identify behind the words, without attributing a more recognisable face behind the surely very personal statements.
These notes would then be collected and uploaded onto a website which chronologically archives all submissions. Considering the purpose of this project to provide an honest overview of the everyday realities of mental health sufferers, any form of filtering results would only be subtly included. Small squares could be scattered between posts to indicate a filtering option. This may rearrange the order of posts, or simply adjust the colours of those that match the desired field.
A postcard series could also be made that takes single statements or constructs interesting/humorous/provocative combinations and prints them on the page. This ephemeral medium can then be passed on to others, potentially with notes/stories on the back. An interesting habit around postcards is that when we see them lying around in numerous settings, we assume they’re free for the taking. Such anonymous and spontaneous interactions are incredibly interesting and unique, and could mean the provocation of a discussion between individuals that might not otherwise have been reached.
To further emphasise the reality that a person is more than their illness, it could also be interesting (and potentially humorous) to display these statements alongside their direct opposites of “I do choose…” and “They do choose…” Curated pairings could then be presented to starkly emphasis the fact that to have a mental illness is not also to be defined by that illness.
I am more than my OCD.
– Alexandra Macoustra