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Opinion Talking about mental health is fine but isn't it time we discussed mental illness?
CEO of Shine mental health charity Nicola Byrne says the more we discuss mental illness openly, the less stigma we will see.

IN RECENT YEARS, society has made significant strides in destigmatising mental health issues. There is more discussion than ever around mental health and strong promotion of mental wellness. However, we still need to address the elephant in the room. And that is the term “mental illness”.

The reality is society is still slow to call it out and use the phrase “mental illness”. But we should be embracing it so we can challenge stereotypes, foster a deeper understanding of the issue, and create a more inclusive and supportive environment for those affected.

Language shapes our perceptions and attitudes. Using euphemisms or avoiding directly addressing mental illness inadvertently perpetuates the stigma surrounding it. A linguistic shift would help remove the veil of silence, and encourage open dialogue about mental illness, normalising the experience and fostering compassion.

Culture of fear

Recent research undertaken by Shine’s See Change Programme tells us that almost three-quarters (72%) of people say they would not want to live with someone with a severe and enduring mental illness, despite the majority (75%) saying they don’t know what a severe and enduring mental illness is.

The survey shows that just 16% of people associated the term ‘severe and enduring mental illness’ with a mental health disorder or condition.

Our research also suggests that, with so many people struggling to identify with the term ‘severe and enduring mental illness,’ more work needs to be done to find new ways of making the language around mental health more accessible.

Today is World Schizophrenia Awareness Day, and Schizophrenia is a mental illness which is still misunderstood. In a joint effort between the University of Galway’s PSYcHE project, headed by professor of psychology Gary Donohoe, and Shine’s Headline Media Programme, researchers analysed 656 articles from 2021 that referenced schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and psychosis.

They found that while the overwhelming majority of articles avoided reinforcing stigma, very few articles actively challenged negative public perceptions. Only 12% provided information that confronted stereotypes, fewer than 3% included a contribution from someone with lived experience, and just 5% supplied a signpost to relevant support services.

It is an illness

Using the term “mental illness” challenges harmful stereotypes and misconceptions. By acknowledging mental illness as a legitimate health issue, we counter the narrative that these struggles are mere character flaws or personal weaknesses. Instead, we recognise them as multifaceted challenges that require understanding, support, and action.

A shift in language will challenge the damaging perception that individuals with mental illness are different and will instead create parity in the way we discuss and describe physical health and illness. This will help pave the way for a more inclusive society.

Embracing the phrase “mental illness” will facilitate empathy and understanding. If we discuss mental illness openly, we will create space for individuals to share their stories without fear of judgment or rejection. By humanising the experience of mental illness, we can build bridges of empathy and encourage compassion and support from others.

When we hear about the real-life struggles, triumphs, and resilience of individuals facing mental illness, it challenges our preconceived notions and fosters a sense of solidarity and connection. This will strengthen our collective responsibility to create a society that prioritises mental health and supports those who need it.

Shifting the conversation toward mental illness will propel us to take meaningful action. By openly discussing mental illness, we can generate awareness about available resources, options, and support networks. It would also encourage policymakers, healthcare providers, and communities to allocate the resources needed to address the mental health crisis more effectively.

Talking is key

I believe owning the issue of mental illness will lead to increased funding for research, improved access to mental healthcare, and comprehensive mental health education. By centring the conversation on mental illness, we will amplify the voices of those affected and act as a catalyst for change that truly benefits society as a whole.

Our vision in Shine is of a more compassionate Ireland where those affected by mental illness and stigma are supported and included in all aspects of society. We specialise in supporting and educating individuals, family members and communities impacted by mental illness and stigma.

Today, Shine hosts an important national conference in Cork featuring inspiring keynote speakers, informative panel discussions, and engaging workshops designed to explore a wide range of topics related to mental health advocacy.

“SPEAK UP – Shine Conversations for Change,” aims to empower individuals and communities in the fight against mental health stigma. The MC is writer Stefanie Preissner, who has been a great advocate for good mental health. Together, we can create a future where conversations around mental health are catalysts for positive and transformative change.

Nicola Byrne is the CEO of Shine mental health charity. For more details on the conference and the work that Shine visit


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