by Jenifer Strauss
While speaking at the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Annual Recovery Celebration in September, I was telling a childhood story that I had shared before but not with the mental health community. While telling the story, I was caught up in the memory of being an energetic eight-year-old child on my way to a friend’s house to go on an adventure. I heard the words leave my lips, “I rode my bike like a crazy person over to Marty’s house,” and I was immediately horrified to discover that I had just used stigmatizing language to tell this story. I did not mean to hurt anyone with my words. I was well aware of stigma and I knew better! It just came out that way and right then and there, I had to do some stigma-busting on myself.
The most difficult and embarrassing part of this was that I am not new to speaking or to the mental health community. I am a consultant who uses story to help people connect, communicate and achieve their goals. When I present, not only do I need to know my audience well but I must also know their mission and the language used by members of the group.
I have been giving keynotes, trainings and workshops for mental health providers and consumers for nearly ten years. My interest in mental health began with members of my own family who were suffering with symptoms of anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. I started to help people tell their mental health recovery stories for healing, stigma-busting, and to inspire others in recovery.
Years ago, I learned how stigmatizing language can cause stereotypes and misunderstandings about people living with and in recovery for mental health issues. Through my Turning Points Process, I have helped people in recovery put a voice and a story to their lived experience to increase awareness and break down the stigma attached to mental health. As a public speaker, I always try to remember what I learned from the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The first of The Four Agreements is to Be Impeccable with your Word.
So, what happened that day when I allowed stigmatizing language to enter into the talk I was giving? I was not being mindful enough. I was too caught up in telling the story and was not careful enough with my words. It took me several days to forgive myself for this blunder. I know that I am not alone in making a mistake like this from time to time so I decided to turn this regretful experience into a lesson and share what I learned with others.
Stigmatizing language is damaging, not only to people in recovery for mental health issues. It is damaging to us all. The most important tools we can use to bust stigma is education and awareness of how our words can negatively affect others. We can look at our behaviors, open our minds and hearts and make every effort to carefully choose our words.
More recently, I have also learned about person-first language. A mental health diagnosis is just a part of a person’s life story but it does not define the whole person. I also realized that I had been talking about my father as someone who was bipolar and depressed instead of a person who had symptoms of bipolar disorder and depression. People living with mental health issues are not defined by their diagnosis. It is just one part of their life story, but not the whole story.
This recent experience was a valuable lesson and reminder of the power of our words to help and to harm. And so, I would like to offer my sincere apology to anyone I may have offended at the Annual Recovery Celebration and leave you with an old Jewish Folktale that speaks well to this lesson. It is called Feathers in the Wind.
A Jewish man is nearing the end of his life. He tells his rabbi that he wants to make amends to all those about whom he has spoken ill. The Rabbi instructs him to take a bag of feathers and put one feather at the doorway to the homes of everyone he has slandered. Thinking this a pretty easy task, the elderly man gets a bag of feathers and places a feather at the entrance to everyone’s home of whom he has spoken ill. Having completed the task, he asks the Rabbi what he should do next. The rabbi tells him to return to each home and retrieve every feather that he placed at the entrances. But he can’t. The feathers have floated off to the four winds. In the much same way he cannot retrieve the ill words he has spoken about others. The gist of this story is that there is no limit to where our negative talk about others can spread.