Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Language Matters

Stomp out…Combat...Fight against…Beat…Battle…these are the words of aggression and war. These are the words also commonly used to rally support to overcome illness. When we think of pervasive diseases such as cancer or diabetes, most do not question combating these deadly diseases. In these examples, aggressive and fear-based language such as dangerous, serve to motivate; fearful people are likely to contribute to research funding and hopefully engage in prevention activities. Here the use of aggressive language potentially helps makes positive change. When aggressive language is used to represent disabilities including mental health, the situation changes dramatically. 

When we use language that says we must fight against a dangerous mental illness or a disability we are telling the uninformed public that people who have these labels are dangerous. We are telling them that these disorders must be beaten and battled against in order to prevent vicious behaviors and violent crime. And when society cannot beat or overcome via a cure, it must find ways of preventing the public from the dangerously ill people. This is how the asylums began in the late 1700s. Most would agree we do not want to repeat this history.

This is not to say that disabilities and mental illnesses do not present difficulties to those who wear the labels. Clinical depression can be debilitating. Many anxiety disorders when left unsupported can lead to clinical depression which can lead to suicidal behavior. Other times, unsupported these issues can lead to substance abuse. In most cases, however, the danger is truly to the person experiencing the mental health issue. More troubling is that the person with the label is more likely to experience violence by the hands of someone not considered disabled. According to recent studies, people with disabilities are at a considerably higher risk of violent abuse than the general public. This means that it is more likely that a non-disabled person will act violently against a person with the disability label than vise versa. It is not hard to believe that our use of fear-based, aggressive language has a part to play in this trend. After all, what better way to beat dangerous mental illness than to start at home.

Language matters. There is a difference between “Fight to End Mental Illness” and “End Stigma about Mental Illness.”  There is a difference between “Mental Illness is Dangerous” and “Misinformation about Mental Health is Dangerous.” What we say and how we say it can be the difference between what the public believes and inevitably how people wearing these labels are treated.