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The Difference Language Makes

When you were a kid, how many times did your parents tell you to mind your manners and be polite? We were told not to swear (even though swearing was so much fun when you and your friends did it in secret). Our parents typically told us to be good people and tried to instill proper morals and values in us. From early on, we seem to learn that language is important. Language affects how you interact with other people.

I am a sensitive person (maybe too sensitive at times), which means I am very compassionate and I am careful not to purposefully insult people. It is hard to hold your tongue when you are experiencing a hypomanic episode and know you may say inappropriate things. Over the years, I have learned to gain control of myself in social situations and I know that while I have a strong personality and a strong sense of self, there are times to be quiet, and times to talk.

I want to talk now, assert myself and say that as someone who is a mental health advocate, I want to do what mental health awareness days, weeks, and months ask us to do: open the dialogue about mental illness, stigma and education. We can start with minding our language. Simply put, language matters: you never know how your words can help or hurt someone, especially if that person is in a vulnerable state.

People are quick to throw around words like “crazy”, “schizo”, “bipolar”, “depressed”, and “anxious” without understanding the consequences of doing so.

I will try to educate those worth educating and explain how and why using mental illnesses as adjectives is harmful and inappropriate. But, as mentioned in older posts, there are those who are not worth the effort, as glum as that sounds, so I choose to ignore it because my time and energy is worth more.  For example, someone at work once said he was “so anxious” about working on a large file and having “such anxiety” and I (impulsively) asked if he was actually anxious or just stressed and explained that anxiety and stress are not one and the same. He thought about it and asked what the difference was. His worry had an end in sight – when the file would settle at a mediation a couple months later. Anxiety is not logical and doesn’t have a set start and stop time or date.

Let’s choose our words wisely. How many words are there in the dictionary? I googled this, and the answer was that there is no straight answer. Let’s not forget that new words get added every year. This is what I found:

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don’t take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

Okay, so there are 250,000 distinct English words we can make sentences with. And if you love words and hate using the same adjectives over and over again, a thesaurus can be your best friend.

This just reminds me why I get upset when I hear people refer to a client or co-worker as “crazy” or “psycho” or describe inanimate objects as “bipolar” or “schizo”, the weather as “bipolar” or “depressing”, or complain that they are “anxious” for who knows what reason. There are so many other words that could be used that would make more sense in these sentences! No one sounds smarter or cooler by saying, “OMG, my neighbour is so moody. She must be bipolar” or sounds funny or whimsical for saying, “That girl is so indecisive, she MUST BE A SCHIZO” or “My day is SOOOO busy – I MUST HAVE BEEN CRAZY to agree to do all of this” or “I have such anxiety about wearing this outfit in public”. You get the idea. It’s easy enough for people to make these comments, and many people will hear them and nod and think nothing of it.

Let’s not blame everything bad on mental illness. We are living in a world full of media and technology, but the written word and spoken word still matter. We are living in a society where we are trying to put an end to stigma, not perpetuate stigma. Stigma prevents people from getting help, from being themselves and speaking out and sharing their stories. It is not a good feeling when you feel like you house a “dark secret” that is weighing heavily on your chest all day or all week.

By the way, I googled stigma, and this is what popped up first:

screen shot stigma

I finally got tired of housing this secret and worrying about “being found out”. I want to live life, not just pass through it. Having bipolar disorder does not mean I have a “mark of disgrace”, some undesirable quality or make me less of a person. If anything I am more of a person because I found my voice. Yes, I found my voice through my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I am sure I have said this before, but I learned to live with this diagnosis as if it were a “live your life” sentence, not a death sentence. My life is not rainbows and puppies and it is not easy, but any challenges I encounter remind me I AM alive and every struggle makes me stronger and reminds me of why I am here and who I am.

Not only is it important for me, and for people who live with mental illness to tell our stories to break down stigma, but it is important that friends, family and supports lend their voices to raise awareness. The support system plays an important role and it’s helpful to hear their stories too.

A great resource to point people to is “Mind Your Language” from Time To Change. It provides an idea of more “appropriate” language that is less offensive.

I’ll end on this thought – if you can educate just one person, and they pay it forward to the next person, and so on, imagine how much knowledge can be shared. It’s a start. Let’s get loud together.

Toni Morrison


Categories: Bipolar Disorder Healthy Minds Canada My Real Opinion

Melanie L.

Mental health advocate. Blogger. Writer. Creative being. Sensitive soul.

(Also law clerk, social media writer/marketer and book worm).

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