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Day Three: The Language of Respect…

Language and mental health/psychiatric illnesses/conditions/diagnoses/challenges/differences ~ labels ~ are hot button, triggering issues for me.

They drive me crazy and feed into our collective consciousness, our prejudices and discrimination. Our negative stereotypes. Our sick public discourse.

Language is political and words matter…

It’s time to stop and think about the words we use. To heal that discourse. I’m hypersensitive to language. So, first, let us consider the seemingly innocuous little article “the”…

It sounds innocent enough, but not always. I cringe at the term, “the mentally ill.”

Who are the mentally ill?

What exactly does that mean? Who are “the mentally ill?” Are they one group of people or many different, unique individuals?

What do “the” mentally ill look like? What are their mental illnesses? Do they have productive jobs and careers? Do they have families and friends? What exactly are we saying when we talk about “the mentally ill?”

And how about “the homeless”? I really get upset when I hear or read that one.

The article “the” when describing a group of people instantly labels them and no one wants to be labeled…

Linguistically, the word “the” used that way is an insidious device to take away our individuality, our uniquenesses.

It’s a linguistic form of prejudice and discrimination. It distances us from the people behind the labels.It stereotypes people. It sets up unnecessary barriers. It creates a “them” and “us” divide. It is ethically and morally wrong, as far as I’m concerned.

Because we’re people first…

No two people who are living on the street or who are among people considered to be hidden and homeless are exactly alike, yet this label, “the hidden homeless,” erases all their personal stories and their individual circumstances.

So it is with “the mentally ill.” As individuals, our stories, our pain, our trauma, our upbringing, our personalities are blended into one big huge amorphous whole that means nothing. Essentially, we are swept under the carpet. One huge elephant, hidden in a closet or under a carpet.

So it is with “the disabled.”

To have a dis-ability does not automatically mean that you are dis-abled. But when you put “the” in front of dis-abled, you crush us. I have a serious hearing loss. I wear two behind-the-ear hearing aids. One is bluetooth and works in concert with my iPhone. I am not deaf. I can hear, but not perfectly. But who’s perfect? I am not dis-abled, though I have a dis-ability. Nor am I dis-abled by my mental and emotional conditions.

“The” is ultimately a dehumanizing construction and we must stop using it…

Meet the dazzling Aimee Mullins and see how adversity can be empowering…

I urge you to watch this dazzling Talk by Aimee Mullins called The Opportunity of Adversity. It’s a powerful meditation on language. Please watch her.

Here’s Aimee’s introduction:

“The thesaurus might equate ‘disabled’ with synonyms like ‘useless’ and ‘mutilated,’ but ground-breaking runner Aimee Mullins is out to redefine the word. Defying these associations, she shows how adversity — in her case, being born without shinbones — actually opens the door for human potential. A record-breaker at the Paralympic Games in 1996, Mullins has built a career as a model, actor and advocate for women, sports and the next generation of prosthetics.”

This 21 minute talk will transform your perceptions of the word “dis-abled” and sensitize you to how powerful and empowering language can be. And how destructive it can become if it’s thoughtlessly used, without respect.

Aimee will astound you…

You owe it to yourself to watch this remarkable, unforgettable woman.

“There’s an important difference and distinction between the objective medical fact of my being an amputee and the subjective societal opinion of whether or not I’m disabled,” Aimee Mullins says. “Truthfully, the only real and consistent disability I’ve had to confront is the world ever thinking that I could be described by those definitions.”

In an article I wrote several years ago titled My Life in Labels

“A psychiatric label describes not only a behavioural disturbance but a state of mind, a personality, a spirit, a persona, an individual. Though no two individuals are identical with identical life experiences, when you are given one of these labels, you are treated like that label, given medications for that label, and it becomes your defining feature. The individual behind that label often gets lost. You become your diagnosis.”

It’s time to stop using the term “mental illness” when there are hundreds of different diagnoses and conditions. We must be specific. We must pluralize that term.

Do we talk about “physical illness?” No. But “mental illness” in the singular is another huge elephant under the carpet that lumps us all together and dehumanizes us.

People-first language is humanizing…

Let us be more sensitive to the words we use and how we use them by using “a Language of Respect.”

Instead of “the” mentally ill, why not talk about people with psychiatric diagnoses or mental and emotional conditions and difficulties.

Instead of saying “the” homeless, why not people who are on the street or have nowhere to live .

Instead of “the dis-abled,” how about people with a specific dis-ability. We are not necessarily dis-abled because we may have a dis-ability. None of us is perfect.

“Different Does Not Mean Less” ~ Temple Grandin

More often, that notion or perception is imposed upon us by people who don’t know better, people who are frightened perhaps because we may seem different. As Temple Grandin, a person who is very high functioning with autism has said, “Different does not mean less.” I love that statement. You should watch her Talk here. It’s called “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds.”

By using People-first language we can begin to recognize that our conditions (whatever they are) do not define us entirely.We all have so many different facets to our lives, roles we play, as daughters, sons, friends, aunts, uncles, professionals. We have our hobbies and passions. All these endless aspects of who we are make us utterly and fabulously unique as human beings.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Image: East Villagers Non-Profit Community News

Day Three: The Language of Respect…

Sandy Naiman

Sandy Naiman is a Toronto freelance journalist.

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APA Reference
Naiman, S. (2019). Day Three: The Language of Respect…. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2019, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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