“Political suicide!” Our peculiar urge to describe Brexit as a mental illness

Mental health charities are warning politicians and journalists to stop using the language of diagnosis for political upheaval.

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In everyday language, there are rules that people should try to follow. Not describing surprising or bizarre events as “mental,” “nuts” or “insane,” for example. Or saying “depressed” or “depressing” unless we’re referring to clinical depression. Claiming “I’m so OCD!” if we’re just being precious about cleanliness is one to avoid. And never calling people we’ve clashed with “psycho” or “schizo”.

There are plenty of other linguistic tics that we should watch out for too – a good resource is on the Time to Change campaign’s “Mind Your Language!” page. The idea is to avoid undermining people with mental illnesses by misusing or trivialising the language of psychiatry.

These rules don’t seem to have reached the purveyors of the Brexit debate, however. How many times have you heard the outcome of the EU referendum described as “political suicide” or an “act of national self-harm”, for example?

It’s everywhere you look.

Brexit is a “collective mental breakdown,” according to the Irish Times. The former ambassador to Japan Sir David Warren called it an “act of economic, and therefore political, self-harm”. The Labour party was accused of a “schizophrenic” stance by Sir Bill Cash MP. A member of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s constituency called no deal “suicide” on Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. In response to the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford asking the Commons “what options are available” regarding Scotland’s power after Brexit, the Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger shouted “suicide!” (meaning “political suicide,” he clarified afterwards).

Even that classic bit of journalese,“identity crisis”, is an example of psychiatry-based language used to describe Brexit Britain pretty much everywhere, all the time.

“Emotions increasingly have a big role to play in political events,” says Toni Giugliano, policy manager of the Mental Health Foundation, who cites the Brexit debate, Donald Trump’s campaign and the Scottish independence referendum as examples. “And I think these emotions and the clinical terms for mental illness have been conflated. Certainly we’ve seen the medicalisation of post-Brexit emotions almost used as a kind of political weapon.”

Giugliano warns that using this kind of language can “act as a barrier for people coming forward for help” – warning against other terms thrown around in the debate, such as “Brexit anxiety disorder”, and the pejorative “snowflake generation”. “We need to resist ‘adjectivising’ diagnostic terms.”

He adds: “As an immediate action, we would urge aspects of the media but also retailers not to sloganise medicalised terms… We need to think about mental health stigma in the language that we use.”

Mental health charity Mind’s head of news, Aimee Gee, also warns against psychological language when describing Brexit. Such descriptions “may seem like harmless metaphors,” she says, “[but] normalising this sort of language can reinforce stigma and misunderstanding around mental health”.

She urges, “politicians and journalists to think carefully about their choice of language, and to use their platforms wisely to raise awareness and reduce this sort of discrimination as opposed to encouraging it”.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.