"No words for mental health"

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Esha Mitra, "India didn't prioritize mental health before Covid-19. Now it's paying the price", CNN 9/7/2020:

No words for mental health

[,,,] Experts say the historical reluctance to address mental health in India could be partly due to a lack of terminology. None of India's 22 languages have words that mean "mental health" or "depression."

While there are terms for sadness (udaasi), grief (shok) or devastation (bejasi) in Urdu and other Indian languages, the specific terminology to address different mental illnesses is lacking. That's because the practice of psychiatry is largely Western, said Dr S.K. Chaturvedi, Head of department at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore.  "It is easier for people to talk about physical symptoms and illnesses than to express to their families that they are feeling low or depressed," he said.

Ambarish Sridharanarayanan, who sent in the link, commented:

As a native Tamil speaker, I admit I'd use the English borrowing when speaking Tamil to a physician but I'd have zero difficulty communicating the idea to someone who only spoke Tamil, probably translating it as "chronic mental tiredness".

The English word depression, literally meaning "lowering", was originally applied to mood via the metaphor "depression of spirits", at a time when the (pseudo-)scientific (or at least more formal) term would have been melancholy. So it's true that the associated state of mind has been medicalized in Europe for a couple of millenia, in one sense or another, though the terminology was either borrowed from Greek via Latin (< ancient Greek μελαγχολία), or described with a metaphorical phrase.

Added to our "'No Word for X' Archive".



  1. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 6:45 am

    Does English have a word for “mental health” ?

  2. Rodger C said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 6:46 am

    Well, obviously you're not being scientific unless you can describe your condition as either "black bile" or "mashed breath."

  3. Cervantes said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 7:04 am

    Yeah, that's pretty silly. The nosology of mental illness in the U.S. has continually shifted, along with the underlying conception of its nature and etiology. Actually right now there isn't any accepted etiological theory for most of the labels in the DSM-5. Furthermore, two people can get the identical diagnosis of "depression" who have exactly zero symptoms in common. The word "depression" didn't become a disease label until the 20th Century, spurred on by corporations that wanted to sell drugs, but obviously people were aware of the existence of chronic unhappiness and had words for it. People with psychosis were at one time thought to be possessed by demons. Now we don't know what is causing their symptoms but the existence of delusions and hallucinations can be recognized and described without a word that translates "schizophrenia." The vocabulary of psychiatry is just a bag of labels for phenomena that nobody understands, and the boundaries between the categories are indistinct and constantly shifting. The labels are necessary however for insurance billing purposes, so that's probably the main obstacle facing people in India.

  4. Chips Mackinolty said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 7:11 am

    More for the 'No word for X' planet. In Central Australia the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council has been developing, for some years now, ways of expressing mental health issues/feelings etc in local languages with some considerable success. See these two posters, for example


  5. Anon said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 8:12 am

    This attached CNN article is ridiculous to extent that I find it funny. First of all, "mental health" is not a word, and there is direct translation in Hindi as मानसिक स्वास्थ्य, furthermore, for feeling depressed there are multiple words which are pretty much semantically mean "lowering" or "loosening", at least in the languages I speak which are Marwari and Hindi. Not mention the well know Dukkha (दुख) from Buddhist philosophy, almost exclusively used as a term for "pain of mind".

    As for the mental health, Indian philosophy goes to the lengths in how to "tame the mind", meditation/yoga are one part of it.

    There is stigma around mental health in India, and lack of trained professionals doesn't help either, but reducing it linguistic/historical issue is false.

  6. Malcolm Keating said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 8:31 am

    Here's a famous passage from the Bhagavad Gītā (1.47) with a single word (strictly, a compound) that could be in the neighborhood of "depression."

    evam uktvārjunaḥ saṃkhye rathopastha upāviśat |
    visṛjya saśaraṃ cāpaṃ śokasaṃvignamānasaḥ ||

    In the middle of the battle, Arjuna, having spoken this way, slumped into his chariot's seat, tossing his bow and arrow down, his mind distressed with anguish (śokasaṃvignamānasa).

    Sanskrit has a rich vocabulary to describe one's mental life.

  7. Kristian said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 12:23 pm

    I don't know very much about India, so I am just speculating, but to be kind to the article, maybe what it is trying to describe is a linguistic situation where doctors and highly educated people discuss such topics in English (since they have been educated about these things in English) and therefore these concepts remain relatively foreign to Indians who don't speak English. That would be different from countries where the influence of English is less, and professionals use the same terms as everyone else there.

    Of course actually believing that there is no mental health terminology in Indian languages is silly. It would require believing that no modern medical literature has ever been translated to or written in these languages. (I mean, you can go to the Wikipedia article on Depression and see that it is translated into many Indian languages.)

  8. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 2:13 pm


    > maybe what it is trying to describe is a linguistic situation where doctors and highly educated people discuss such topics in English (since they have been educated about these things in English) and therefore these concepts remain relatively foreign to Indians who don't speak English.

    I addressed this issue in my message to Mark:

    > I'd have zero difficulty communicating the idea to someone who only spoke Tamil, probably translating it as "chronic mental tiredness".

    To be concrete, in Tamil, it would be something like மனச் சோர்வு நோய்.

    [(myl) And Google Translate is right on it:


  9. Ellen K. said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 4:22 pm

    Google Translate even recognizes "மனச் சோர்வு நோய்" (from Ambarish Sridharanarayanan's comment) as translating to depression.

    And it's word for word translation (which I got by putting each word on a different line) "mind fatigue disease" seems much more straight forward than the English "depression".

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 5:59 pm

    Anglophone MD's use an opaque-to-outsiders jargon full of Greek-derived words and phrases, like "thymic dysplasia," but unlike a century or two ago can no longer be assumed to have actually taken even introductory classes in ancient Greek. And I'm not sure if that was ever entirely true in frontier societies like the 19th century US — I can't imagine that my great-grandfather who got his MD in Michigan circa 1885 was entirely innocent of Latin but I can more easily believe that living away from the east coast and not having gone to a fancy college he might never have advanced to Greek. (

    So to draw the obvious parallel, if MD's in Dravidian-speaking parts of India used a special register of their native languages full of loanwords from English that were opaque to non-specialists but didn't actually know English-as-such, would that be better than the status quo or worse than the status quo?

  11. M. Paul Shore said,

    September 8, 2020 @ 8:18 pm

    To put this all into proper context, perhaps someone with a better knowledge of the Indian linguistic scene than I have could discuss the significance of the staggering degree to which the conversation of educated people in major Indian languages is permeated by English words, phrases, and sentences, with people switching between their Indian language and English at full speed several times per minute. (My own knowledge of this is confined to what I’ve seen in Indian movies.)

  12. M. Paul Shore said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 6:01 am

    My point being (continuing from above) that if, say, a quarter or a third of a given speech community’s total utterance-time consists of English words, phrases, and sentences anyway, that would presumably reduce the felt need to have a well-developed parallel mental health vocabulary in the Indian language in question.

  13. Rodger C said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 7:13 am

    People with psychosis were at one time thought to be possessed by demons.

    A bit later, at the beginning of scientific investigation ca. 1600, they were usually diagnosed with "melancholy," a term much broader than depression that included schizophrenia. Or whatever it is now.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 9:20 am

    M. Paul Shore's comments remind me of the Navajo Code Talkers where the code part basically consisted of not borrowing words from English, but instead coming up with Navajo terms to use in their place. It's not hard to picture how much the speech of regular Navajo speakers talking about the same subjects would be filled with borrowings from English. (And, yes, many of those terms borrowed from English came to English from other languages.)

  15. anonymouse said,

    September 9, 2020 @ 5:30 pm

    I think the article is confusing having word for things with having different ideas about illness. I'm sure every language can come up with words that can express ideas about mental health. After all, many mental disorders consist of thoughts or feelings that healthy humans feel, except exaggerated in intensity or duration. But not every culture or every person considers such exaggerations a "disease" the way a tumor or a missing enzyme is a disease. My mother, who is from Taiwan, makes fun of my father for "needing" an antidepressant (she thinks it's an excuse for laziness) and scolded me when I was a suicidal teenager, telling me that "all teenagers are suicidal" and that I should get over myself. I've read that many Chinese people of her generation and earlier think similarly, that depression isn't a thing and that you should just be a better person. I'm sure there's a word for "depression" in Chinese now, and my mom is a pretty good English speaker in any case, but the existence of the word doesn't mean that she believes in it. Conversely, if you were willing to believe that depression is a distinct disease, you could cobble together a word or phrase for it, as attested by earlier comments.

  16. Lane said,

    September 10, 2020 @ 6:45 am

    And they really want us to think they went through the level of scrutiny this thread has applied to Tamil for all of India's 22 languages? 22 "scheduled" languages, that is; India of course has hundreds more.

  17. maidhc said,

    September 11, 2020 @ 7:54 pm

    Seconding what Ellen K. said, from what I read about the code talkers, they created a list of words they needed to use (I would imagine things like "ammunition" or "anti-aircraft gun") and assigned Navajo words for everyday objects to them. So just being a Navajo speaker was not enough to be a code talker, you would also have to learn this very specialized slang.

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