Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Words Make Worlds: Language and the Culture of Mental Health in the Workplace

Republished with Permission from Insurance Thought Leaderships
By Donna Hardaker and Sally Spencer-Thomas

Part I: The Science and Social Movement

"commit suicide" - "successful suicide" - "the mentally ill" - "suffering from a mental illness"

Photo by Benjamin Child
These phrases rattle off the tongue--yet we, as social justice advocates, find that they rattle our souls as people continue to use them in well-meaning workplace education programs and community discussions. Let us explain...

In 1984, George Orwell said, "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." The phrases above are commonly used inside and outside the mental health sector, and because of this common usage, they are accepted. We suggest that they corrupt the mindful thinking of those who speak them and those who hear them. We would like to change this.

What if being more mindful of our language could release new ways of thinking that eventually open up new opportunities for creative ideas, thoughtful approaches, and ultimately true social inclusion? What if we make a conscious effort to find words that more accurately reflect the experience of mental health conditions and suicide--would we be better able to have empathy, support, and inclusion in our workplaces and communities through the use of more skillful language? We argue: Yes.

Neurolinguistics tell us that the words we use as we speak inform the way our brains store and process information about whatever it is we are talking about. Words carry current meaning and history of meaning. Many words are associated with inaccurate and unfair messages that serve the perpetuate misunderstanding and prejudice. The labels applied to people who have mental health challenges by clinicians create assumptions, expectations, and interpretations that can set misperceived limits on how much growth and performance is possible, while also creating the means for social exclusion. We believe that this process is often unconscious and has an insidious effect on our collective thoughts and feelings, especially regarding marginalized groups, like people who live with suicidal experiences and mental health conditions.

We are hardwired to remember problems, especially when we perceive these problems to be dangerous. So using language that is negative, connotates difference, and insinuates a threat tends to be very "sticky." To undo this, we need to spend extra effort to build a vocabulary that is life-affirming, dignified, and inclusive. Paying attention to our language as we talk about mental health and suicide while constantly and intentionally working toward improving our language will help create a workplace culture of compassion, vitality and engagement.

Stigma reduction campaigns and workplace mental health trainings that do not pay careful attention to language are limiting their impact, and may be the reason why, even after the many years of stigma reduction campaigns, we are not much further ahead in terms of reducing stigma in the workplace.

Language is the most powerful tool in our understanding of each other. In any social movement, language must be addressed. How we speak about people informs us about them, so when we speak unconsciously, without attention to bias and misperception, we are perpetuating social prejudice and its damaging impact. By changing our language, we alter our perceptions and attitudes; this is social justice.

Part II: The Words--in the sequel to this blog we explore the history, impact and alternatives to specific words used when talking about suicide and mental health.


SALLY SPENCER-THOMAS: As a clinical psychologist, mental health advocate, faculty member, and survivor of her brother's suicide, Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas sees the issues of suicide prevention from many perspectives. Currently, she holds leadership positions for the Carson J Spencer Foundation, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and the American Association for Suicidology.

DONNA HARDAKER: Donna is an internationally recognized industry expert in the emerging field of workplace mental health. She is an award-winning curriculum developer, advocate, public speaker, writer and advisor, who has leveraged her personal experience of mental health challenges and their impact on her employment history into a significant body of work. She is the Director of Wellness Works, a workplace mental health training program of Mental Health America of California that has been evaluated as highly effective in stigma reduction with lasting behavior and culture change. Donna is from Toronto, Canada, but now lives in Sacramento, where she greatly enjoys the California sunshine.