The Failure of Language

Recently I was asked by a friend to write an introduction to a guide intended to protect those in Psychiatric institutions, whether long or short term…

The validation of my sanity may well be dependent on labeling the other insane.”

The Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR)

If you do not understand much of what is written in Jason Page’s Mental Hospital Survival Guide, it is likely not written for you. It is a different language for many of us, but it is only too familiar for someone you love, or someone close to you. This guide is written in the language of the schizophrenic, which is as unique as any other language on earth, complete with its own vocabulary, structure, culture and syntax. So much of it is lost in translation. Empathy fails In that regard, all too often becoming sympathy, which risks being rooted in ignorance. Support demands acumen with the language.  Because language here is imperative, this may be the most important single piece of information they may ever receive. It may save their life. It will certainly impact the quality of their life.

Over the years Jason and I have had many conversations on the limits of language in describing what is commonly referred to as Mental Illness. Even as an author and playwright I grasp, I fear unsuccessfully, with the pale limits of language for a better descriptor that likewise does justice to the schizophrenic, as well as to the dignity of the individual. Mental illness seems to fall short. Mental Disorders almost seems to blame the individual for something entirely out of their control. Mental health seems to parcel people into separate pockets of the unhealthy and healthy. I have tried to use Perspectives, but even this falls short, as if there is agreement on mental issues. Even the word mental detaches mind from body. Mental Distress at least endeavors to indicate one of us is in need of help, support, access to medication, protection, love, care…

A 2010 World Health Organization’s Mental Health Survey estimated that at any given moment there are 450 million mentally ill people in the world, or about 6% of the population. That number is almost certainly conservative. Whether lifelong or episodic, as with depression or despair at the loss of a loved one, or post partum depression, a myriad of distresses awaits all of us at some period in our lives. Being institutionalized, even over night, for severe mental distress, such as depression may happen without a person’s consent if a health professional fears a person may do themselves or someone else harm. The shock and fear and disorientation in an unfamiliar, even seemingly hostile environment may cause a situation to spin out of control. Worse yet, if actions by individuals, the authorities or the institution itself turn abusive, resistance or “common-sense” reaction may lead to greater harm.

Language also fails us in our understanding by separating mind and body. We argue Nature vs. Nurture, as if either could exist independent of the other. More importantly, the question becomes, have we wrested ourselves from the horrific and inhumane 19th century Asylums. Inmates were routinely called Lunatics, Insane, Mad, Deranged and more, which keeps us mired in ignorance. That history is not so easily discarded, as the failure of language so clearly illustrates.

The first references to Schizophrenia appear from ancient Egypt, though likely it has been with us throughout most if not all of human history. The word itself was coined in 1911, a veritable blink of the eye in human history. The revolution in Magnetic Neuro-Imaging, only a couple decades old, reveals absolute physical differences in the brains of Schizophrenics in comparison to non-Schizophrenic brains. Schizophrenic males show differences from Schizophrenics of other genders.

Despite substantial breakthroughs in our understanding of Schizophrenia, we still live in a world in which demonic possession is popular in movies and fiction, in which every major religion advocates exorcism to deal with so-called demonic possession. While Schizophrenia is certainly not the fiction of demonic possession, far too many still believe they are connected. Heinous criminals are routinely called “demented,” “lunatics” or “crazed.” Here again we are allowing the failure of language and the burden of our history of ignorance to fail brothers and sisters who so desperately require our love and commitment, insight and support.

Perhaps the greatest failure is the state of institutions and hospitals. In 2014, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a global watchdog committed to investigating and exposing human rights violations in the field of mental health, exposed how, “our sane cures” and the “sanity” of psychiatric institutions often “abuse and punish the patients” under the guise of treatment or cure. The CCHR pointed to misdiagnosis, over-medication, disregard of restraint, violent restraint, punishment and isolation, abusive therapies and lack of training to name just a few.

Jason Page’s Mental Hospital Survival Guide carries the CCHR assessment beyond the clinical to the experiential. The advice and perspective here is taken directly from his own experiences, detailing abuses and dangers from the perspective of the patient. Having known Jason for a number of years, watching him manage Schizophrenia with a rare and empowered agency, I can think of very few who possess the insight, experience and scars that this narrative is intended to help.