The acronyms of the mental health world
Acronyms, they seem to define the mental health world. Whether it’s a diagnosis (ED, BPD, BP, PD, OCD, SZ), a behaviour (SH, OD), a treatment/service (DBT, CBT, IP, IOP, DP, OP, CPN, HTT) this code of language is familiar place within the mental health scene.
I would never go as far as to say I’m fluent in this “acronyms language” but I am aware of how much I tend to rely on them when talking with friends and fellow service users. Oddly I don’t use “text” speak and I am obsessive about the correct use of your and you’re, for some peculiar reason, but when talking in terms of all things mental health, I am first to say yes, I rely on the code.
Is it the fact that abbreviations seem to have less connotations, they’re less easy for people to understand - giving in to the stigma still engulfing the mental illness world? Is it the fact out of sheer laziness I cannot be bothered expressing myself in the full length of the word? Or is it the fact that after seven years in the mental health bubble I am just accustomed to this excessive use of abbreviations?
It was in one such conversation with a close friend and project worker that I realised how completely inaccessible this extreme use of acronyms is. As we were using them loosely and understanding exactly the projects and meaning of each one, it dawned on me that for anyone without the background we have, how would they understand us ? What sense would it make?
It isn’t just the language used service user to service user, or professional to professional; projects both public and professional have their acronyms too. I’m involved in the TTC (Time to Change) campaign, YMs VIK (YoungMinds Very Important Kids) project and RCP (Royal College of Psychiatrists) QNCC (Quality Network for Community CAMHS - child and adolescent mental health service), QNIC (Quality Network for Inpatient CAMHs) and SURF (service user involvement forum): five projects awash with their own language and terminology, which leaves me in no doubt as to why mental health still remains exclusive and completely unknown.
My first few RCP meetings, as a YP (young person) advisor, was basically spent listening to people talk to me in what sounded like a foreign language. Acronyms and terms that I had never heard were being batted about casually, and in my “I’m just a service user” role, I felt embarrassed to ask what on earth the conversation was on about. Silence ruled for the majority of those initial meetings.
Months in, I am becoming increasingly aware of how much I now sound like those professionals those very first meetings. My knowledge of acronyms and abbreviations which dominate this side of my life is growing by the day, and my tendency to use them, in honesty, is growing too.
Is it the culture of the mental health climate? is it the threat of the stigma if some “normal” member of the public was to overhear, or is it just sheer laziness? I do not know, but it does make me realise one thing; in my role as an “expert by experience” or “professional service user” I have become accustomed to the day-to-day language of acronyms and abbreviations, and in this speciality I too am isolating the very people I intend to represent.
Abbreviations will exist; we have the “text” speak that is so familiar to the younger generation and inaccessible to some of the more traditional members of society, and likewise we have the “mental health code”. But, in creating this language we are also creating a barrier, building up walls between professionals, service users and members of the public that really we should be knocking down.
We can never escape those abbreviations but maybe we should be mindful about who we’re speaking to, our audience and the accessibility of this language we use. I don’t want to be a “professional” mental health service user, and I don’t want to isolate everyone by the language I use, and that is something that applies to everyone.
Language is an incredibly powerful thing, and making the terms we use accessible and understood by all, may be the first step in dissolving that invisible barrier that means mental health is still alien to many.