The Language of Mental Diversity
Chloe Tyler, MSc Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org
“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names will never hurt me”.
(Except that they can, and they do).
Michel Foucault discussed the power of words: their ability to harm or help. I, myself, emphasise the power of the words we choose to use, encouraging college students during diversity presentations to consider their choices.
Consider; I give you a chocolate brownie and ask you to provide a label for it (chocolate brownie). I then ask you to tell me what that label makes you think, feel. You may say “hungry”, “chocolaty”, “sweet”, and “can I eat it now?”
I reply that “no”, you cannot! That word ‘no’ itself has power: you do not eat the brownie (or maybe you rebel, and do!).
Now, I add the word ‘mouldy’ to the label ‘chocolate brownie’. The power of that word!
You look at the brownie in disgust, revulsion – you inspect it, turn it this way and that. Yet, the brownie has not changed.
You rightly ask: what do (mouldy or otherwise) chocolate brownies have to do with diversity?
Please consider the labels in which we describe those with ‘mental illnesses’:
And on and on………
Let us now consider Sam. You have known Sam for several years. You know their likes, dislikes, demeanour and personality; you like Sam. Yet, someone mentions that they have a ‘mental illness’ and consciously or unconsciously your impression of them changes. You behave more cautiously around them; you talk to them differently.
Mental illness – these are but words. However, language truly has power over people. Most certainly we must consider what the term ‘mental illness’ does to someone, and who it actually benefits.
“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
(Italics added) ― Michel Foucault, 1988, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.
Currently the term ‘mental illness’ reduces individuals to a victim of a disease, a contagion, an inflicted mind. Yet, those labelled as such are so much more! I implore you to truly think before you speak, please do not reduce someone to a label – we are all part of a diverse, complex and beautiful tapestry.
I thank you,