The Power of Language and Labels

A while ago I posted a meme which said, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a psycho for the rest of your life.”

I liked it, of course, otherwise, I wouldn’t have posted it. Eleven others did too, some commenting on Facebook, “Amen to that,” and “Definitely!!”

Then this: “Hate it. It’s beat up on people with mental illness time again. Ever had the amazing person you love tell you that they just can’t deal with your mental illness anymore? Our society is totally phobic about people with mental illness having intimate relationships.”

Woah, that came a bit out of the blue. I hadn’t made the link between “person with a mental illness” and “psycho”, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it. It didn’t say, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a person with a mental illness for the rest of your life.” I had linked “psycho” with the often weird, unspoken assumptions people make when in relationships, which have kept me out of long-term relationships all my life.

It made me think, though. Suppose it had read, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an idiot for the rest of your life.” Would that have been a slight against people experiencing unique learning function?

Probably a more accurate meme would have been, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an arsehole for the rest of your life.” But that’s not what the image said.

For the record, I have had someone I loved tell me he couldn’t cope with my unique physical function anymore. It was hard to hear, but ultimately he was the one who lost out. And I know intuitively many would-be lovers haven’t even gone there — again, their loss and my gain, because why would I want to be with anyone so closed-minded?

The power we let labels have over us can be overwhelming. If I had a dollar for every time a person called someone a “spaz” in my presence, I’d be wealthy. If I got offended because “spaz” is a shortened version of “spastic”, which is one of my diagnoses, and I got another dollar for that, well — I’d be angrily living in the Bahamas.

I think the evolution of language — and the generalization of words like, “gay,” “spaz,” “idiot” and “psycho” — creates the opportunity for them to lose their charge and liberate us from their stigma. By allowing them to continue having power over us, though, we re-traumatize ourselves every time we hear them. Words are symbols and they change meaning over time and in different contexts.

I celebrate that “gay” means “not for me” rather than “fag”; that “spaz” means “over-reacting”, not “crippled”; that “idiot” means “unthinking”, not “retarded”; and that “psycho” means “someone with weird, unspoken assumptions”, not “a crazy person”.

By letting words change meaning for us, we are redefining diversity and creating social change. It’s not a case of, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s recognizing that, unless someone is looking directly at us menacingly, calling us gay, spaz, idiot or psycho, we’re not in their minds — they’ve moved on.

Maybe it’s useful for us to move on with them?

Exploring The “CRAZY”: Looking Deeper Than Labels In Mental Health

I frequently meet great people who identify as “bi-polar” or are labeled with “schizoid personality disorder,” often times both labels have been assigned amongst an array of other diagnoses such as schizophrenia, borderline and ADHD. When I ask them, “How long have you been diagnosed”?  Some of them say “forever”, and/or they often give me an age like “since I was 12.”

dsm5Many people place judgement at this point and see them as permanently damaged with a life sentence of living in chaos due to labels in mental health. Even worse, many of the diagnosed individuals place their identity in “being” a label/diagnosis and become more vulnerable to stigma and discrimination.

It is no surprise that one might find their identity in a diagnoses as this is fully supported by the medical model of health care that is all-too-often inappropriately utilized in mental health services across America.

For example, if you “are” a type 1 diabetic that is something that you cannot control, for the most part.  A doctor can pinpoint an incurable illness or disease and the patient receives an answer with a plan of care.  There is never a need to ask “why?” because there is nothing we can change to reverse or “heal” the illness.

In social work and health care we often become bitter and burnt out with the same old problems.  The revolving door in emergency departments and mental health units is a timeless joke heard across the country by both professionals and clients (sadly).  It is also the epitome of a lack of asking “why?”

When we fail to ask why then we fail to address the root problem and in turn we fail to provide quality services.  When we fail to provide quality services then we do not follow through with equipping clients with the skill-sets for mental and emotional well being.  Instead, we make the assumption that an individual is “too damaged” or a “hopeless cause” because they have continually failed treatment.

We must remember that a mental health diagnosis is nothing more than a description of symptoms.  In addressing mental health, such symptoms are generally a list of behaviors, attitudes and actions that decrease an individual’s ability to maintain a feeling of safety, security and happiness.

So, when someone tells me that they were diagnosed at age 12, I simply ask “why?”  Most of the time they are shocked by the question because nobody has ever taken the time to listen.  They usually struggle offer a response.  At that time, I re-phrase the question by asking, “What happened when you were 12?”

I have not done extensive trials or studies on this, but for the past two years I have specifically focused on asking “why” or “what happened” in my work as a Crisis Worker and 100% of the time they give me a very direct answer.  For example: “I was beaten and raped by my dad when I was 12” or “I didn’t have parents and my only family was my grandma and she died then.”

Instead of focusing on improving emotional wellness and family dynamics, we settle for the poor practice of pushing pills.  Instead of offering validation followed by guidance, we belittle and talk down or, even worse, don’t talk at all.  My challenge for you is to inspire hope in the hopeless and simply listen.  There are lots to be heard and learned, even from those who just don’t seem to “get it.”  Everyone needs to be shown the way before they can start on the right path.  Be the one person that it takes to shine a light on the hard work of personal growth and emotional intelligence.

There is always a reason behind behavior. Instead of judging, lets ask “Why?”  This is the starting point for providing Trauma Informed Care which is now being trickled down from the federal level by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

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