The power of words – Should we be conscious of the words we use when talking about mental health?

“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Words have power, you only have to think back to your time in the playground and someone used words to bully you. I don’t know about your parents but mine constantly reminded me that sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me, was a complete lie.

Those words still hurt me today over 25 years later and pop back into my mind when I am feeling particularly low.

Applying this to everyday life I am beginning to realise that the words I am using when I talk about mental health may need some conscious thought. I don’t want to offend, I don’t want to cause other’s distress and I don’t want to feel the shame associated with causing someone else to feel bad. I equally don’t want to be adding to the stigma associated with mental health.

So here are my top tips I am going to apply when I am talking about mental health (including my own) for what I have learnt so far:

  • The way mental health is discussed is constantly changing – the words that may have been used to describe a situation in the past are not necessarily the most descriptive or accurate now, it is our responsibility to look at what words are being used and if we agree with their use.
  • Mindful discussions of mental health – we need to be conscious about what we say, think about the consequences of the words before they come out but also don’t bet yourself up if someone challenges you as it is another opportunity for us to learn
  • Tone – the way we say things is equally important to the use of words if you use a particular tone that can be observed as being insincere or dismissive means that no matter what you are saying the discussion could be harming others.
  • Word choice – now this is often extremely difficult, what words can be used? In what context are you using them? We wouldn’t say “I feel so cancer filled today” but people do say “I am so depressed today because [insert sports team] lost their game last night.” It shows flippancy and fails to understand the full extent of depression. I hold my hands up and admit that I am guilty of such things, such as making statements like “I think Laurence is on the Autistic Spectrum” or “don’t be so OCD” without fully understanding the implications.
  • Honesty – if you are not sure about something then ask, if you are talking to someone about their mental health then they will probably feel like you are respecting them by acknowledging you don’t know everything. I don’t know how many times I have tried to explain borderline personality disorder to someone – I never take offence I am often flattered that the individual feels able to ask.

I think I will add to this over time, as well as additional information on the do’s and don’ts of writing characters in fiction with mental health conditions (although I am struggling with feeling qualified enough to make such a list) but I can identify my opinions about what I prefer when reading fiction!

3 Replies to “The power of words – Should we be conscious of the words we use when talking about mental health?”

  1. I’m thrilled to have found this blog, Sydney! I’ve written two songs about the power of words (one is titled “More Than Bipolar” specifically about bipolar and the other ditty is just a plain old love song called, appropriately enough, “Words”)

    What an excellent post! The tips are spot-on helpful.

    And what a great Hawthorne quote—I’ve never seen that one before. Only a few days ago I read somewhere a new version of the classic “sticks and stones” quote – the new one is this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can break a heart.”

    1. Thank you so much Dyane, I am finding more and more that words are having a lot of power over me and can influence my mood. I think I am going to write more about the power of words so watch this space! It will just be my opinion but I think it is important to highlight!

      1. You are so very welcome, my friend. In the 11 yrs. since I was diagnosed I’ve gone through times where certain words would set me off, i.e. if I noticed the word “crazy” being used inappropriately (in my opinion) in print, it would totally influence my mood and I would get piping-hot mad. I’d write letters to editors in the papers in which “crazy” appeared (and my 2 letters, sent to two separate papers, actually got printed!)

        I am no longer upset by that word, but other phrases will grate on my nerves & they hold power over me. Here’s the biggest one these days: “I’m bipolar” — you will never catch me saying that since it’s not my style & it goes against everything I believe in. Others swear by “I’m bipolar” because that is how they identify themselves and they have every right to do that- I guess that’s not exactly a stigma issue, per se, but thanks in advance for letting me vent here, LOL!

        I’m rambling but please know I’ll watch this space, your opinion rocks and it means a lot to me, and you’re a fine, insightful writer! You can bet I’m going to pre-order your book when the time comes! 😉

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