December 3, 2012

We always talk about stigmatising language, off the cuff phrases and discriminatory terms, but what’s the meaning behind the words? We often attribute misunderstanding, lack of knowledge or even malice to those who use such phrases. But what if we tried to decode them and realise their intention instead?

I've had a think about the various times people have used insensitive or misinformed language in relation to my mental health and I’ve tried to see beyond the initial frustration and anger at their ignorance. Instead, I’ve thought about what they might have been trying to say or wanting to say but didn’t know how.

"You'll grow out of it” = I don’t want to accept that this might be long-term

"I'm fed up of you crying all the time” = It’s hurting me too much to see you like this and I can’t handle it

"But you don’t have anything to be depressed about” = I’m trying to understand why you feel like this but I can’t attribute it to anything concrete. Maybe there’s something you haven’t told me?

"Hahahaha” = I have absolutely no idea what to say. This is awkward and I feel like a total idiot for not knowing how to respond.

"Everyone feels like that at some point” = I don’t want to accept that you’re any different.

"You're too young to have a mental health problem” = I don’t think I can deal with this yet

"What a psycho” = this isn’t like you, and it’s scaring me

"Yeah I’ve felt sad too before” = I’m trying to relate to what you’re saying because then it’s easier for me to empathise and understand

"You’ve changed” = I miss how you were when you were happy, and I hope that person comes back soon

"Are you better yet?” = I hope this is over for you quickly

This might look like merely blind hope or over-optimism. I’m not saying that those who use pejorative language are all well-meaning and simply bad communicators. There are undoubtedly some people who do have stigmatising or discriminatory attitudes imprinted and ingrained. But is that the vast majority?

When I really look back and think about who used those phrases, they are all people who loved me and cared about me. They would never have wanted to add to my pain or make me feel more alone. Yes, the words are fuelled by ignorance, or denial, or miscommunication. But they are also fuelled by feelings. Feelings of helplessness, desperation, confusion, hurt, rejection, anger, and fear. Those in contact with people with mental health problems need support too. Not just emotional support but support on how to communicate their thoughts and concerns in a sensitive and productive way.

I'm a great believer in trying to understand why people act the way they do, not just persecuting them or labelling them as ‘ignorant’. We can’t fight labels with labels! Let’s try and see the person behind the phrase, just as we ask others to see the person behind the mental illness. It’s only through understanding actions that we can start to challenge them, help them, and bring about change.

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