Context matters, and so does your audience
We often use words for dramatic effect. If your family came in from hiking all day and sat down to a beautifully prepared meal, you could reach for the potatoes and exclaim, “I’m starving,” without much chance of offending someone. However, you’d be much less likely to make the comment while volunteering in a food pantry or shelter.
It’s not always easy to tell who your audience might be, though. People of all sizes, shapes, ages, ethnicities and cultures are susceptible to mental health conditions. Yet, we use “crazy,” “insane” and “OCD” casually and often without any regard to who might be in our audience.
Promote parity for mental and physical health
Words associated with serious physical illnesses don’t appear in our everyday speech in the same way. If you got home from work utterly exhausted and said, “Work was insane today,” your audience would understand that it was busy, overwhelming and draining. If you collapsed on the couch and said, “Work was like getting chemotherapy today,” they wouldn’t get the same message at all. Moreover, they’d probably feel like it was inappropriate to compare a hectic workday with having chemotherapy.
We can do better
Over time, we have begun to misuse words that represent powerful, life-altering experiences to many people, and it can reinforce the stigma associated with mental health conditions. If we consciously replace these words with any of the dozens of alternatives available to us, we can begin to lessen the stigma around these conditions. People who are suffering from them will feel more comfortable talking about them, and clinicians will have a more complete picture of the overall health of their patients.
Start with you
Give some thought to your own language choices – I certainly have, especially as I worked on this piece. If you knew that something you were doing unintentionally was making someone else bleed, you would stop doing it. It may be harder to ignore a physical injury you’re accidentally causing, but emotional injuries matter too. It’s not soft, wimpy or lame to notice that you could be hurting someone and do something about it.
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