Nuffield Health launches new report calling for a change in language around mental health

A new report calls for a change in the medically-focused language society uses to discuss mental health. Created following a panel discussion in October, the report forms part of a campaign to encourage people to think more holistically about their mental health and to break down the barriers preventing people from opening up and accessing support.

In a recent survey we found that nearly a fifth of people (16%) would be too embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help with any mental health problems they experienced while one in ten (13%) still worry about being judged or discriminated against. 

Titled ‘More Than Words: The importance of language to normalise everyday mental health and enable access to support in uncertain times’, the report highlights conversations with Dr David Crepaz-Keay, Head of Empowerment and Social Inclusion at the Mental Health Foundation, Dr Radha Modgil, GP, broadcaster, author & wellbeing campaigner and Dr Alex George, an A&E and TV doctor, presenter and podcaster. It provides opportunities to help to drive the de-medicalisation of everyday mental health and accelerate the much needed change in language, so that during these challenging times, more people of all ages can be encouraged to seek help sooner.

Current estimates predict more than 10 million people in England alone will need either new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the pandemic, with this figure likely to rise as the pandemic continues to disrupt our everyday lives. However, with figures revealing a fifth of Brits (22%) find it hard to talk about their mental health, the scale of the problem could be larger than thought.

One of the biggest challenges posed by society’s historical positioning of mental health as a medical illness, is around language. While viewed as a medical illness, it inadvertently creates stigma and discrimination. As a society we are told that one in four people will experience problems with their mental health and no one wants to perceive themselves as the ‘ill’ one. However, the report argues that society should view mental health as something everyone has, that it exists as a continuum and like physical health, can be protected and enhanced, not just treated when problems occur. Like physical health, mental health can fluctuate in the absence of any diagnosed illness.  

Our Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Brendan Street, comments: “With the nation facing an unprecedented and protracted strain on their mental health, it has never been more important to open up conversations and encourage people to discuss, and seek help for, the challenges they are facing. At the heart of this lies a change in language. At a societal level we need to shift the conversation away from a medically-led model of mental illness towards an experience-led, holistic model that encourages people to think about the link between physical and emotional health, and facilitates conversations using language that everyone can relate to.” 

To encourage conversations, language needs to reflect the fact that experiences and lifestyle factors play a bigger role in our mental health than medical conditions. Nearly half of Britons surveyed (42%) don’t understand that poor physical health can impact on mental health, or that factors such as diet (69%), exercise (54%), relationships (52%) or sleep (45%) can help boost mental resilience (our ability to adapt and bounce back during adversity). Talking about mental health as an ‘illness’ can also prevent people accessing support early on as they believe they have to be medically ‘ill’ or have a serious problem to receive help. Over a third of Brits (37%) wouldn’t seek help for worrying their problem wasn’t serious enough, however mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. 

In its conclusion, the report calls on employers, schools and media - as those with the ability and access to large proportions of the population across all ages - to help to drive the de-medicalisation of everyday mental health and accelerate the much needed change in language, so that during these challenging times, more people of all ages can be encouraged to seek help sooner. 

Taking action on report findings, we, in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, have developed a digital questionnaire to encourage the nation to think more holistically about their mental health. Taking around five minutes to complete, the questions explore multiple factors that can impact emotional wellbeing such as: physical activity, work and finance, purpose and value, eating and drinking, sleep and digital detox. On completion, users will be guided towards information to help maintain emotional resilience, sources of support, and where to seek help for problems they may be experiencing. The questionnaire can be accessed here.

Last updated Thursday 10 December 2020

First published on Wednesday 9 December 2020