Mind your Language

I am now, after yesterday’s course by St John Ambulance, a Mental Health First Aid Champion. It was a fascinating course and I learned a lot of new things. It was the perfect mix of listening and interactive group exercises and there was an interesting mix of attendees too. One of the exercises we had to write on a flip chart all of the negative words that are used to describe Mental Health and on another, the positive  words. It soon became very clear that there are many more insults and criticisms of a sufferer of poor mental health than there were positive references. It made me think that even when we think we are enlightened or aware, a number of times, even yesterday, I thought of using the phrase ‘are you mad?’, mainly in jest but even so it arose several times through the course of the day. I know a colleague of mine who used to tease her team mate who was attending counselling, she would joke ‘ Are you going to Mad class today?’!

Language has changed around disability and special needs too in my lifetime; when I was a child we talked about the handicapped, which is a really negative word, but not as bad as ‘crippled’ so perhaps we made some progress in the 1970s after all. Although I can remember at school that it was  a common insult to call someone a ‘spastic’ or a ‘retard’, which makes me shudder now. It is not a defence to say that we did not know any better and that it was common-place during my childhood, but language does change and develop.

I tend to describe Joshua as having ‘special needs’ or a ‘learning disability’ which is a gentler, more vague  description.I have also seen autism have adopted a new label to replace disabled , which is ‘differently abled’ which makes sense for this varied and complex condition and certainly has a more positive twist. It is interesting how the use of different descriptors though can come across as more negative or positive. There is a movement to use politically correct language when describing minority groups, but the problem is that language is entrenched and often you can be unaware that the words that you have been using are no longer appropriate. I am not sure if this is something that is taught in mainstream schools? How does society keep up and ensure that we are not unwittingly being negative, or worse being insulting, either about a sufferer of mental illness or someone with special needs?

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