By Dr David Laing Dawson
There it was again. The local paper reporting on homelessness, reporting on the results of a survey of over 400 homeless people in our city. All very nicely written and laid out. The number of homeless people who have been the victims of violence; the number who struggle with addictions. And the over 80% who suffer from “mental health issues.”
Dictionary definitions of the word ‘issue’ include:
“An important topic or problem for debate or discussion” – the operative portion of that definition being “for debate or discussion.”
Now I understand that how we describe or name something may shift and change over time, often for good reason, often not. We no longer use the word ‘retarded’ to describe someone who has less than average intellectual capacity. It is a word that accrued a lot of baggage through the years, and became a schoolyard epithet, implying, at least in the vernacular of teenagers, something like “willful stupidity”, or “in bad taste.”
But euphemisms often creep into our vocabulary to hide the truth, or to reduce the sting of truth. Sometimes the euphemisms are simply more polite (‘disability’ may become ‘special needs’); sometimes they are obfuscations with only a limited reference to the original activity, problem, or thing (‘illness’ becomes ‘issue’), and sometimes they are softer vague words chosen to hide the reality of the action or intention of our governments, bureaucrats, and military, and sometimes they are even, a la George Orwell, antonyms of the word that would actually reveal the truth.
I don’t know how the word ‘issue’ became the mot du jour, sometimes even added as a totally unnecessary noun. As in ‘he has addiction issues’ instead of ‘he is addicted’. I suspect it is related to the actual meaning of ‘issue’, (a topic open to debate), and by calling mental illness an issue we are placating the deniers of mental illness and we are reducing it to an abstraction, a topic for discussion and debate, rather than a reality in our midst, and often the actual cause of homelessness.
Even if, reasonably, we want to reserve the words ‘disease, illness, and disorder’ for only severe forms of this reality, this plight, we still have other words to chose from that do not imply a debatable abstract: ‘problem, difficulty, trouble, worry’. We might even say “mental health concerns, including mental illness”.
But let’s stop with the “issue” when we are naming or describing a painful reality.