Words make worlds


Today we considered how the language we use can be stigmatising, and how language can be extremely powerful, so much so that we can change a culture by changing the language. For example, a lot has been done over the last few decades to change the way we speak about racial differences, hopefully helping to bring about more understanding and acceptance.  Offensive terms that were once commonplace would now be frowned upon in most contexts.  The language used around addiction has also seen a shift over the last couple of decades with more emphasis on recovery than addiction.  Today we were focusing on the language and labels used around mental health and suicide.

The group looked at examples of labels and sayings some people used in society and discussed them. Below are the examples of the labels or sayings:

‘Nut-job’,  ‘Psycho’, ‘Junkie’,  ‘Loony’, ‘Space Cadet’, ‘Jakey’, ‘Depressive’, ‘Addict’, and sayings like; “She’s just attention seeking”.  We discussed again people’s feelings around the term ‘Commit suicide’.

Some of the discussion was around how much these terms have been normalised and accepted, particularly when the media continue to use these terms.  We acknowledged that there is a difference between people who aware of the impact of they say, and education and understanding is important. Just because it’s seen as normal, doesn’t mean it is okay.  However, some people use these terms maliciously knowing the impact it is going to have. If you know what you are doing is hurting someone, this is unacceptable behaviour.

When we talk about suicide we need to be aware that language is so powerful, it can increase the problem.  Typically the language “commit suicide” still infers a crime with its associated shame and stigma further contributing to the distress of those who are bereaved following the loss of someone who died in this way.  Some communities may feel they cannot openly grieve or speak about how their loved one died.  If, however we understand that depression is an illness, along with other mental health issues, suicidal feelings may occur.  What we all want to do is prevent suicide.  A more helpful, compassionate and understanding discourse around this by talking in terms of an illness may bring more hope and healing.  For example saying;

“My loved one died tragically after a long illness”.  Some people felt this was helpful.

We also talked about getting the right balance in language, so that we were not so oversensitive that people couldn’t openly express their feelings, but to be aware that some terms are categorically offensive and that language forms culture and belief.  For example if a standard assessment is called a ‘needs assessment’ it automatically implies a deficiency, where as a ‘strength based assessment’ more positively implies that a person has strengths which will increase a persons confidence.

Group members agreed that if labels are heard in the group which are unhelpful, there is permission to challenge the terminology.

To read a guest blog we wrote on this topic please click this link.

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