There are words we use, which we often use without thinking because to us the words are commonplace. And to us, they’re just words. But words have meaning. Words mean more than what they say. Words tell a story. Words paint a picture and both define and describe a person, place or thing. I never thought much about the words I used because to me, the words I was taught were words I was taught. I never saw how they could be offensive to someone else. Plus, we literally live in a world where everyone is offended by something, somewhere.
One of my favorite lessons in Mental Health First Aid classes are the groups we split into.
One of the questions for the group is to list as many words we associate with mental illness. Of course, the groups like to put their best foot forward. Some look for politically correct answers. Eventually, the list grows and if the trainer is interactive and looking to push for an honest response, the trainer will suggest to speak plainly. This is not an office environment. The question is this: What are the words people use that are associated with mental illness.
The first are the common ones. The lists go on from crazy to lunatic, to basket case, to the more creative words like window-licker, or the meaner ones like retard or idiot. In fact, the list grows pretty long.
After the groups break up, there is a sheet of paper on the wall in which a representative from the group writes down the list they came up with. The next step is interesting. The words on the list are graded between helpful and unhelpful. The interesting part is how in most cases, the list of helpful words is very short but the unhelpful list is much longer.
Mental illness is two words put together. And the words themselves have a hard sound to them. In fact, there is an immediate connotation when the two words come together.
Take the word “Homeless” or the word “Addict” or look at the word “Alcoholic”.
Now think about the word “Depression,” or the words associated with this and thrown around like “Bi-polar” or “Manic”.
What are the faces of any of these? Is there one?
The answer is no.
Now, consider the common words we use to define or describe the subjects above? Are any of the words helpful? Or, do the words we use promote the stigma?
We can change this exercise to fit anything. We change this to race or religious background. We can do this exercise with learning disabilities. We can use this exercise with physical or emotional disadvantages or personal delays. Or, what about our financial status? How about people with money and people without? What are the words we use to define or describe them?
I was working with someone in law enforcement. And we were talking about they way the officer was seen. We talked about what goes on behind the badge. We talked about the “Us against Them” mentality that is seen by people on the other side of the law. As someone that was once on the other side of the law, I can say the “Us against Them” mentality was used as an idea of survival. Then we talked about the “Us against Them” ideas that come from behind The Blue Line. And again, the idea behind this was seen as a means of personal survival.
I offered this idea, which is that there is an interesting phenomenon:
When someone puts on a badge. They are no longer human or held to normal human standards. They now become a separate entity, which means they lose the right to be human or have a life. This is inaccurate and false. Moreover, this is also impossible. No one in the world is machine-like but yet, when the badge is on, the uniform takes a presence. Meanwhile, the officer was not an officer at all. The officer was someone with a heart, blood and bones like the rest of us. This person had a family and a purpose the same as the rest of us do.
In fact, I have used the above exercise in my jail program. I asked my class to give me all the words that people use to define them. Of course, the list began with crooks or criminals. And the list was long. The list was angry. And more importantly, the list was created by them as inmates and discussed by them as inmates. Not as people. Not as someone with dreams, wishes, or aspirations.
Each word used to describe them was stigma-based and ugly. This was also a description of how them saw themselves. They believed in the words they chose for this list. They believed in the words hoodlums, bums, criminals, convicts and jailbirds. We allowed this to go on for a short while and included the terms that come with addiction and alcoholism.
One of the men in my class asked me, “Well, what do you call yourself?
He was slightly defiant but more frustrated than anything. And why wouldn’t he be? He just listed more than a dozen less-than favorable names he uses to describe himself.
He asked, “Well do you call yourself an addict or an alcoholic?”
I answered, “No, I call myself Ben”.
I explained, “I don’t walk up to people and introduce myself as ‘Addict” or walk up to anyone and say ‘Hi, my name is Ben and I am an addict and alcoholic,’ and I don’t assign myself to a description with anxiety or depression.”
I can say that I live with certain challenges. I live with this no differently from anyone else in the world. I live with my challenges but yet, I am not the challenge. I make mistakes but yet, my mistakes do not make me
(unless I allow them to).
Think of the word “Cancer” and think of connotation; think about all the ideas we connect to the word cancer. Maybe we think of chemo, or death, or maybe we picture a loved one in a hospital bed, sickly and weak. The denotation of the word is clear and simple. It is the connotations that grow legs in the mind and cause our thoughts to run off in a direction. So yes, words have meaning. Words will have more than one meaning.
If someone has cancer, do they cease to be them? Does someone with Pancreatic cancer change their name to Panc?
The answer is of course not.
Years back, I ran a Sunday morning empowerment group at a homeless shelter. And the truth is I had never been to a homeless shelter before this. I had no idea what I would see. I didn’t know what to expect. I suppose my programmed ideas led me to the biased assumptions of what I would see or who I would meet.
This was a humbling lesson for me. I learned the word homeless does not have any specific face or skin color. There is no connection to ethnic or religious background. I saw people from all walks of life and from different places in the country. There were people of all ages. There were people that were resistant and people that were willing to learn or move forward and recover.
No one wants to be labelled. No one wants to be defined by the connotations that come with the words we use. No one wants to be pinned to a word that can seemingly weaken us. No one wants to fit a description and be described as less than valuable or unworthy of company.
I love this lesson.
This is one of my favorites because this lesson taught me about myself. I learned about the limitations we put upon us because of labels we’ve been given.
There is a word I hear and I hear this often. This word is one of the most simple and more frequently used words in our language. We often use the word “Just” and oftentimes, the word “Just” is a word that “Just” doesn’t make any sense.
Tell a stutterer to “Just” slow down when they speak or to “Just” stop stuttering.
Tell someone that lives with anxiety disorder to “Just” get rid of your stress.
Tell someone that lives with substance abuse disorder or alcohol abuse disorder to “Just” stop.
Or tell someone that lives with suicidal ideation to “Just” look on the bright side.
Or, wait no . . .
Let’s keep it simple.
Better yet, tell someone with Covid, just don’t be sick or be contagious.
Does that work?
Tell someone with food poisoning, “Just” don’t throw up.
Tell someone with cancer “Just” don’t lose your hair when you go through chemo or “Just” think about something else when someone sees you for the first time and the sickness changed the way you look.
Sometimes the word “Just” is a word that “Just” doesn’t fit.
We have to think.
Or better yet, we have to rethink and address our ways of thinking.
In order to strengthen our society, we have to empower our society. Stigmas won’t help. Shame based programs don’t help. And fear based programs won’t help either. Empowerment and encouragement are the true ways to change life.
Mind your judgments and the words we use. Trust me, in times like now and with all that’s going on, we need all the unity we can find . . .