Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Words Matter

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about hope. I referenced multiple challenges in this world right now that are sparring with hope, including “riots in Chicago.” I hit submit. Within moments I had a message from a trusted colleague who pointed out my poor word choice. She had already heard from other readers who experienced this reference as triggering and hostile. The term “riot” has become a lightning rod experienced as political and divisive and in opposition to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

And I thought I was writing about hope. This moment has prompted me to reflect on how much of our words matter. It is true in this case. It is true in the world of mental health broadly. Some reflections: 

1. I apologize. To any and all readers who were offended by my word choice, I apologize. I am grateful to my colleague for bringing this to my attention, and I regret that I offended readers with my careless word choice. I have put in place measures that I hope redress the situation. I could provide a bunch of excuses and explanations, but that’s not the point. I have written about how genuine apologies matter in promoting mental health. A good apology has three components: regret, responsibility, and remedy. This is my intent here.

2. It didn’t occur to me. Here’s the thing: I didn’t even think about it. I repeated verbatim what someone said on a Zoom call earlier in the week. The fact that it wasn’t even on my radar until I heard from my colleague is stunning to me in retrospect. I can’t not see it now. The whole experience laid bare for me my position of safety and privilege vis a vis the race and social justice issues of our day. It was a humbling moment that made me recognize how systemic racism can play out so personally.

3. Crazy. Nuts. Headcase. The same thing happens with mental health and mental illness. Word choice matters here, too. Careless language is stigmatizing. It is othering. Careless language spreads. When people use expressions like “crazy,” “totally nuts,” and “out of his mind,” it perpetuates ignorance and prejudice about fellow human beings. It also creates distance – separating the speaker from the person referenced. And it contributes to creating an accepted norm of parlance so that others adopt and repeat. There’s no doubt that our use of language reflects and reinforces stigma around mental illness.

4. It is more than political correctness. Words matter to those listening and to those speaking. The data on internalized stigma provide a clear message. When we repeatedly tell people that they do not belong or that they fall outside the favored places in our communities – whether it be because of skin color, mental illnesssexuality, gender identity or some other aspect of self – that stigma gets internalized in ways that can have profound impact on identity and health, including mental health. The negative stereotyping, or stereotype threat as Claude Steele called it, results in people believing and internalizing the negative views of self. For individuals with mental health conditions, reaching out for help and support is made more difficult and more challenging because of internalized stigma. It lowers quality of life and shortens life expectancy.

5. Words create and heal. We humans are storytellers. We craft personal narratives to make sense of our world. We search for just the right words to express how we feel. We fill libraries with fiction and non-fiction, novels and dictionaries, encyclopedias and poetry. We engage in talk therapy. We have intimate conversations with friends and lovers to connect, solve conflict, and heal wounds. Louise Glück recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her contributions to the field of poetry. Gluck struggled with anorexia as a teenager and almost died before eventually recovering through therapy. Critic and writer Daniel Mendelsohn says: “When you read [Gluck’s] poems about these difficult things, you feel cleansed rather than depressed.” Her recovery, her poetry, in her words.

Words matter. I heard my colleague. Words matter. I apologize. Words matter. We create and heal.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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