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by • May 12, 2014 • Life As I Know ItComments (0)2209

Navigating Language Land Mines – A Conversation about Mental Health

This post was inspired by a thoughtful and important read by Charlie Potts discussing the current #SACommits blog series furthering the conversation about mental health. 

Mental health, unlike some other topics of conversation in student affairs and the wider professional community, is littered with land mines buried under good intentions and blissful ignorance. Many of these explosives are set off by the intricacies of vocabulary and language, an area we are still only beginning to understand. As a recent contributor to the #SACommits blog series, featured on the Student Affairs Collective, I was touched by a recent post by Charlie Potts discussing the use of the word ‘Commits’ as the tagline for this campaign.

Charlie offers a thoughtful perspective on the use of the term in this conversation, noting that “Too often we excuse the use of language when it benefits us.” There is an innate privilege in working toward reclaiming a word or term that we find offensive or upsetting. Often, we are not directly subject to the labels and assumptions the word contains, so we can maintain a safe emotional distance from the term while battling alongside our colleagues on the intellectual frontlines.

In conversations about mental health, privilege is particularly salient. Those who do not or cannot identify as struggling with mental health challenges are in a privileged position to engage in dialogue from 16 000 feet – above and at arm’s reach from the more complex nuances that arise from a conversation that attempts to be reasoned, focused, and logical about a topic, and with people, that sometimes feel anything but.

There is, however, another side to the privilege used in these conversations – the privilege of being on the ‘other side’ of the mental health conversation. For the sake of this discussion, the other side, to me, means those of us who intimately know the struggles associated with poor mental health, because we live them ourselves. It includes those who have written and will write for #SACommits, and the many others who read or comment on these posts to share their own stories. Living in this reality provides privilege that gives a different weight to seemingly inconsequential terms, creating a¬†conversation, as Charlie rightly points out, ” [that is] attempting to spread the message to the widest possible audience,[by using] a term … that is most often connected to the negative stigmas around mental health to the broadest audience of people.”

There are many words, including ‘commit’ and ‘committed’ that I struggle with in this arena. One of my trigger words for as long as I can remember has been ‘worry’, as in “Don’t worry!” or “There’s nothing to worry about!”. As someone living with anxiety and who only recently has been able to truly shine the spotlight on what it is and how it impacts me, worry means far more than being preoccupied with the ‘what if’s’ of life. Worry can be a tormenting, tumultuous burden that can paralyze any attempt at positive, forward action. Worry is what led me into my darkest hours and is what continues to follow me around, albeit it (after some very hard work) a few steps behind these days.

Commit is, perhaps, a more common or obvious offensive term in this conversation, one that speaks more broadly to those who fight these battles, those who stand alongside their allies, and those who learn by watching a documentary style view of mental health played out in the media and on neighbourhood streets. What fascinates and frightens me about this and other terms is the extra layer of danger involved in invoking these terms, for whatever purpose, in these conversations. ‘Worry’ may trigger intense despair in me, while for others it may be another string of letters tucked safely between ‘don’t’ and ‘about it’. With such a vast field of vocabulary littered with the possibility of emotional missteps, it is no wonder that any and all conversations about mental health can lead to potentially explosive consequences, both for those in the arena and those hit by flying emotional shrapnel on the sidelines.

Dodging land mines and walking on proverbial eggshells is no way to live and no way to advance these important discussions. While Charlie raises a vital point about the use of language that can, and one can argue should, be offensive, the answer isn’t always as simple as removing the word from our lexicon or swapping one word for another. Using terms like ‘health’ or ‘fitness’ for example, carry their own assumptions, often related near exclusively to physical health. While I continue to engage with the #safit conversation, celebrating my push up progress or lamenting the existence of staircases, I remain especially conscious of my privilege in this arena – both in being able-bodied and, at times, being able to see health as a uniquely physical state. Perhaps a topic for another post, but the almost exclusively corporeal focus on fitness and health in these conversations begs the question as to why it is so easy to navigate the conversational landscape of building muscle, losing weight, or training for a run when these and all other physical exercises are so intimately tied to our emotional and mental well being.

Charlie’s post speaks for many of us who have, at one time or another, struggled with what to say and how to say it in what are, without question, demanding and challenging conversations. In a conversational landscape riddled with these language land mines, it is inevitable that something will explode. We will be offended. We will shrink back, and we will be bloodied and bruised in the arena. There is, however, no progress without pain and no movement away from what we know without being uncomfortable in leaving behind what we know and trust. We must enter the arena not with a dictionary, but with compassion and a willingness to make mistakes, the humility to learn from these missteps and a resolve to do better next time.

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