Words Matter

​I work in a home for the mentally ill

I work in supported accommodation for people with mental health problems.

Do you see the difference between those two statements?  For me, one conjures the image that I “care for” “sick” people unable to look after themselves.  It gives the impression that I work in a care home or similar, which is starkly different from what I aim to do.  Sadly, it suggests a lack of agency on the part of those I support.  “A home”, rightly or wrongly, triggers notions of “personal care” and sad abandonment, of people sequestered from society “for their own good.”  “A home” is not “a home” at all in the sense of being somewhere anyone would want to live.  I am not saying, by the way, that this is what “a home” means to me or should mean to you; rather, I am talking about the mainstream perception of that term.  Meanwhile “the mentally ill” is suggestive of an amalgomous lump, a group of people whose problems are identical, unsolvable, and unlike anything the “average person” can imagine.

What I actually do is very different, and better described by the second statement: I work to support people who have difficulties in supporting themselves with certain things, with calling benefits offices, taking medication or getting to the shops alone.  I don’t “look after” people so much as I promote them looking after themselves.  Maybe it doesn’t sound like much of a difference but for me the distinction lies in “supporting” rather than “caring for”, the difference between looking after someone who cannot do so, and supporting someone who can but may have difficulties in certain areas.  The people conjured up by these statements have very different support needs.  Moreover, for me, the people described by the first statement are considered indistinguishable from one another by being lumped together under one umbrella term- “the mentally ill.”

I can’t stress enough how much of a difference language makes to me.  To us.  I wrote once about how I “have” (not “am”) bipolar, how the distinction between these lies, for me, in the suggestion that one is essential to who I am, whereas one discloses something that affects my life but is not the be all and end all.  As I stressed at the time, I am not suggesting by any means that others should self-describe the same way that I do.  I know that for some people their mental health problem feels innate and intrinsic to who they are.  Sometimes it feels that way to me, too.

I’m just saying that we need to be mindful of the language we use and the feelings can trigger.  That we should check with people, as much as possible, how they like to refer to themselves- much as, if unsure, it is ok to ask someone their preferred pronouns.  This applies to so much, if not all, of the language we use when discussing health.  For example, some people find “service user” is a more empowering, less passive word than “patient.”  To be “a patient” is (for some people) to be under the care of Those Who Know Best.  To be a service user is a different thing- it suggests an element of active choice and the entitlement to receive a good service.

It’s not about “political correctness gone mad” or people taking easy offence but about allowing people the possibility to self-define and, moreover, the opportunity to be empowered by the words that they choose.

3 thoughts on “Words Matter

  1. Good points, but awkward. For example, the same argument regarding lesbians has come up several times in my life. I have one friend who prefers to be called a lesbian, another who prefers queer and another who prefers dyke. I’ve been told that, out of respect, that an individual should ask what they prefer to be called. That hardly seems like the way to start out a conversation.

    I prefer it being said that “I have bipolar disorder,” but I don’t get too upset when someone says “I am bipolar.” I catch myself saying it from time to time.

    I guess I agree with everything you’ve said, just not sure of an easy way to resolve self-definitions.

    • Yeah I understand where you’re coming from. Not sure, maybe I could have said it better.

      It is definitely awkward to always ask someone how they like to define but by the same token it can be awkward to get it wrong! I’m with you on not minding about someone saying “I am bipolar” also. I tend not to be too fussy about words used to describe myself.

      I think maybe my argument is clearest in my first point, about how we discuss care services… it’s all about the imagery.

      Thanks as ever for commenting, you always have interesting input . And please excuse any typos… phones are a nightmare.

  2. Reblogged this on Only See Your Good Side and commented:

    I wrote this a little while ago and it has recently been tweeted, facebooked etc by http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/

    It’s had mixed reviews- mostly positive, but with some people mentioning that, in light of cuts to mental health care, words are the least of our worries. I agree to an extent- there are more urgent things facing the mental health community than simple words. Yet, in an age where discrimination is still rife and in which words are a weapon against those who experience poor mental health, I still believe it is relevant.

    For me, what were once slurs (crazy, mental) are now words I feel comfortable reclaiming, in much the same way as some (not all) feminists/ women might reclaim the word “slut.” I know others do not enjoy the privilege of reclaiming the words used against them and this is why I remain fighting against the stigma perpetuated- yes- by words.

    Tell me what you think- I am certainly curious to know and not offended by those with differing views. I understand both sides of the coin and I like a (respectful) debate.


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