Jessica Gibson: Using Your Words Wisely

Jessica has written about the importance of how we use language and how we speak about mental health.

Sometimes stigma around mental health is intentional and other times it’s really not. Either way, how can we manage the way we speak about mental health without feeling like we are compromising our freedom of speech? How do we react when we feel somebody is using offensive or stigmatising language? How can we be more considerate and conscious of our choice of words without feeling like we are being excessively politically correct?

We live in a society that still commonly uses phrases such as ‘they’re insane’, ‘psycho’ and ‘that’s so depressing’. We call somebody a ‘hoarder’ when we know they like to collect stuff, or somebody else ‘OCD’ when they like to be tidy or keep things in certain places. We have all probably, at some point in our lives, been the culprit of using such language – myself being no exception! It may seem harmless, like there is nothing wrong with using these terms, but the issue with using such phrases and language is that it can minimise the experiences of those with an actual diagnosis. For example, imagine having to manage obsessive compulsive disorder on a daily basis; feeling like it has total control over your thoughts, your beliefs and your behaviour. Imagine feeling trapped in cycles and rituals, the sense of hopelessness and frustration that comes with the feeling of a lack of control over your own life. Imagine the energy it takes to manage this, only to have somebody listen to your disclosure and respond with “Yeah, I know how you feel because I’m a bit OCD myself, I just can’t stand having a messy house!”  It becomes clear to see that they just aren’t the same thing!

Freedom of speech tells us that we have ‘the power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty'(1). Freedom of speech, expressing oneself and feeling able to communicate whatever we want is one thing, but is intention another? It’s inevitable that we are going to make mistakes with what we say and how we say it; because we are human and even experts can be fallible! We have to be kind to ourselves, as making mistakes is how we learn and it’s all a part of the process. When we say things with no ill intention but still offend somebody though, what do we do? Do we give ourselves a hard time about it and never speak again? Do we brush it off and decide that the other person is weak, too sensitive and a ‘bit of a snowflake’? Or do we take it as an opportunity, an indication that we can improve the way in which we communicate with others and begin to learn how we can better word things?

Everybody is different and we all have different sensitivity thresholds. Everybody is on their own journey in life and no two journeys are ever the same. If somebody discloses their mental health issues and initiates a conversation, it might make us feel nervous because we feel that we do not understand it or maybe we find that it conflicts with our beliefs? Whatever we feel about a topic, it might be more important to realise that we have the option and the power to question our intentions and think about how we might make the other person feel before we speak. Even if we feel like we have no understanding at all, is it possible to try to imagine that it was actually ourselves talking about something that we feel is difficult, or is a sensitive subject in our life? We could ask ourselves, ‘How would I like to be spoken to if this was something that I found really hard to talk about?’ – asking that one question before we begin to talk might really impact the direction of that whole conversation.

If helping people feel good about themselves, empowering others or becoming knowledgeable are things we might value, then is it worth exercising a small amount of restraint through questioning our language before we speak? Language is powerful because it has the ability to affect people in many ways and knowing this makes it almost impossible to deny the importance of thinking about it. If you’ve ever listened to the lyrics in a song and wept, had the urge to dance or even smiled and felt warmer inside then you’ll know just how powerful words can be! We all react to words on a daily basis – they make us angry, happy, confused and hurt. Learning about language, thinking about language and asking questions about language is something we could all maybe do a bit more of without feeling like we are compromising too much. If it means helping people to feel good, opening doors to conversations we’re too scared to have, or to understand things we might not already know about, then I know I’m definitely going to try to be more conscious of how I say things in the future.

2 Comments

  • Flourish Admin

    From Billie Critchlow (and having listened we would recommend too):
    As a follow up to Jessica’s piece about language and stigma, may I recommend this excellent piece by Tom Shakespeare? It is intelligent, non-ranty and a must-listen for all who are interested in busting the stigma surrounding mental health. Definitely worth ten minutes of anybody’s time. Find it on BBC iplayer at Tom Shakespeare. A Point of View: Mental Illness Metaphor BBC Radio 4, 8.48-8.58 Sunday 15/04/2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09yh6n9

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