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.