Sticks & Stones – why words DO hurt

We’ve all heard the childhood chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

The message is pretty clear: you cannot hurt me by name-calling.

As we grow older, we quickly realise that it is exactly those ‘mean words’ that stick with us. While we may not be able to remember things word by word, sure we can remember how it made us feel. Not so great.

I did my BA Hons in English Language & Linguistics at Roehampton University. I loved talking about why language forms part of one’s identity and ideology. Language is powerful, in fact, so powerful, that you can talk yourself into feeling ill when you’re actually not! 

Which is exactly my point. Words can impact us. An “I love you” can lead to happy tears while an “I hate you” can lead to sad tears.

While there are certain taboos and big no-no’s (i.e., racial slurs) I have noticed an increase in ‘unaware language’. Mental illnesses are used as metaphors and similes in casual conversations:

“My boss is so annoying, I bet she’s bipolar”

I got a bit OCD today and cleaned my flat

“The weather in the UK is schizophrenic”

“I couldn’t find my hat; I almost had a mental breakdown!”

Often people do not really mean that they literally had a mental breakdown. I have never heard anyone using ‘cancer’ or ‘HIV’ as a metaphor. You just don’t. It is ignorant and insensitive.

Mental illnesses are debilitating for the individuals and respected families. The importance of these words is taken away by using it in ‘jest’. In fact, they do not seem to be respected. Below I will make it clear why:

“My boss is so annoying, I bet she’s bipolar” – She might be, she also might be on medication, she might be struggling with personal problems, she may have an undiagnosed mental health condition.

“I got a bit OCD today and cleaned my flat” – Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a mental disorder where individuals feel that they need to perform certain routines repeatedly (compulsions) or experience certain repetitive thoughts (obsessions). If you felt energetic and like cleaning your flat, maybe just say that as opposed to using ‘OCD’ as a reason, unless you actually have it. OCD is known to take over people’s lives.

“The weather in the UK is schizophrenic” – No, it isn’t. The weather does not have continuous episodes of psychosis, nor does it hear voices and suffer from disorganised thinking. This is painful to hear if you know someone who has gone through it. It ‘triggers’ something within. Do not compare the weather to a debilitating mental health condition.

“I couldn’t find my hat; I almost had a mental breakdown!” – Maybe the person you just said that to actually had a nervous breakdown last week. I bet you, they will keep it quiet since you’ve already used it as a means to make fun of.

We live in a world where we are constantly reminded of our ‘weekly screen usage’ and to spend less time on our phones. To get our 8 hours of sleep. To drink less alcohol. To scroll less. To do more Yoga.

Are we also taking notice of how we talk? While casually name dropping mental health conditions may be funny to some, it is a reality and a battle to others. Becoming conscious of our word choices means that we are deliberately trying to include others, not to alienate.

So. Start today.

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