What Power Do Your Words Hold?


The way you say it, matters.




I heard it all the time: whether while walking down the hallways, or sitting inside class, skimming through a textbook, while eating a snack, or even while just sitting quietly while waiting for a ride to get back home. This is just the tip of the iceberg: the huge, glacial edifice of hostility and astute hatred ran far deeper, all through High School and College. It didn’t matter what I did — or didn’t do — I was me, and that was immensely difficult for so many people around me to accept. I set out with my ambitions, I had my dreams. But to them, I was nothing more than a joke, a stimulus for cruel laughter and insults. To them, my ambition was not supposed to be anything besides trying to be invisible, if the earth below didn’t do me a favour by caving in and swallowing me whole.

It is easy to throw adjectives. It is very easy to sit on that side and pass judgment. It is totally easy to say that someone is ugly, or that someone is a “retard”, or that someone is a loser. Very, very easy. It is very easy to string two harsh words together and stamp it on someone’s forehead, branding them forever.

But what is not easy, is being at the receiving end. And, when you’re at the receiving end while dealing with the challenges posed by mental illness.

Words can be terribly destructive. They can leave you crushed under their power. We forget that words are not just a means of communication but become a verbalisation of our thoughts. We forget that words are not just callous utterances that one forgets like yesterday’s news, but are etched in the hearts and minds of the one hearing them.

Every person is born with rights and dignity that are inherent in their identity as a human. Every person has intrinsic value and deserves to be respected and treated with equality for that very value. When one is coping with mental illness, there’s already a challenge to their perception of themselves — they are unable to see their value and dignity, and feel vulnerable. Stigmatising them with language that polarises their needs, their identities and their challenges makes for demeaning experiences that are hurtful and which complicate their personal situations.

Language can, whether inadvertently or otherwise used, assault the dignity of an individual, and this is as true of a person in need of help for a mental health disorder. If they are made to feel fear or are shamed, it makes their treatment and healing difficult. Dignity should be promoted in the caregiving process, both professional and personal. Always be there for a person who has a mental health disorder and is in need of some assistance. Do not judge them, scold them or tell them to “snap out of it”, because that can be one of the harshest things one can say to them. This is both dangerous and also a bad example to set — for the individual may not feel comfortable with sharing, or talking about what he is going through.

It’s all in how you say it.

It might come from a place of care, but what you say is only one part of it; it’s just as vital, if not more to also be careful about how you say it. Concern is but natural, and you want your loved one to be okay — so the best way to go about is to cast aside any considerations that you might have, and avoid imposing solutions upon an individual who is in need of help for his mental health issue. Avoid forcing your solutions onto them — it is important that you stand steadfast in support of the person, but always ensure that you do not expect that your solution for them to be the be all and end all. A solution is not a solution until it is owned and shared as a vision for the person in need of a solution.

The way you say it, matters.

Kirthi Jayakumar is an Advisor at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Bobbo Sintes

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