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The casual use of stigmatising language relating to mental health is everywhere. From throw-away descriptions of best friends as being totally mad, to a busy weekend as being mental. Much of the language that is commonly used to describe mental health conflicts with a focus on a strength-based and recovery-orientated outlook.[1] A focus on language that is respectful of people who have experienced reduced mental fitness and the promotion of communication that focuses on recovery and personal empowerment has all kinds of benefits. Correcting the terminology used is not about political correctness, but recognises that language has an impact on shaping and reflecting currents of thought and feelings towards this issue. It also sends an important message about considering those whose lives have been affected.

The terms ‘mental illness’ and ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ (PTSD) are highly-stigmatising as they reinforce the ‘illness state’ and inadequately recognise the life of the person being described. They also operate to the exclusion of a focus on recovery and the potential benefits of an experience with reduced mental fitness. Preferred terms that were suggested during the course of this research include ‘mental fitness’ (Major General Jeffrey Sengelman), a term used in this report where practicable, and Operational Stress Injury (Peter Leahy—Chairman, Soldier On), both of which are intended to ground the language in a biological foundation. Lieutenant Colonel James Kidd stated, ‘I believe “mental resilience” is a term that suggests a proactive disposition and is therefore more useful’. Others suggested a need to avoid stigmatising medicalised language altogether and talk about ‘blokes feeling angry and thinking about stuff more than they used to’ (Troy Simmonds—veteran). Another current serving military officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Langford, commented that the effects of war on the human mind are entirely normal and to be expected. As part of evidence to an inquiry in the 43rd parliament, the following was reported:

Legacy noted that there have been attempts overseas to characterise mental health issues not as a disorder (for example, PTSD), but as a battlefield wound or operational injury.

Legacy submitted that such an approach to terminology would help to normalise mental health wounds and injuries as part of battle, and be perceived as more honourable and easier to accept than something termed as a ‘disorder’. They submitted that this could also assist families to convince their veteran partner to seek treatment and support as required. Legacy suggested terminology such as ‘Battlefield Stress Wound’, or ‘Operational Stress Injury’.[2]

While care needs to be taken to ensure that people affected are not discouraged from seeking professional advice and support, believing that severe symptoms are normal, consistent terminology needs to be adopted that avoids language which fuels stigmatisation. It is also beneficial to avoid the word ‘suffer’ and the language of ‘harm’, and instead focus on the ways in which these experiences can potentially lead to growth in other ways and an ability to adapt to change. Suffering is a subjective experience; through discourse we impose suffering on people with PTSD, thus limiting the individual and society from a fuller understanding of this condition. The removal of judgemental labels might allow people to attach their own feelings to the condition, thus empowering them and allowing for hope and new meaning. PTSD may not be all about suffering; the pain may also result in personal and societal growth (Paula Dabovich—researcher, University of Adelaide).


[1].       See, for example: Mental Health, Drugs and Regions Division, 2011. Recovery-oriented practice literature review, Victorian Government Department of Health, Melbourne.

[2].       APH Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade—Inquiry of the Defence Sub-Committee, 2013. Care of ADF personnel wounded and injured on operations—report released June 2013 (p. 53—point 5.21-2) Canberra.