Fagot, nigger, retard –these are all words which were once common practice. Thankfully, as a society we mostly realised that it was offensive to flippantly use these phrases, often as a way of (un)consciously marginalising and demoting groups of people.
One could argue that it is merely phonetics and that the words in themselves are not offensive. However, I would maintain that the meaning and intentions we attach to them do play a role. Often people facetiously might state “that’s so gay” or “I was such a retard” as a way of signalling their disdain for something or themselves. What we as a society need to be aware of, is the implications of the language we use. By making such claims you are inadvertently stating that being gay is despicable, and people with disabilities are obtuse – you are suggesting that these members of society have less worth.
Mental health is an equal opportunity ailment with global reach; unfortunately, we still lack any global solutions. Suicide is one of the many areas that we neglect, with at least 800 000 people a year completing suicide (note that suicide is woefully underreported and does not account for attempts). In 2014 the WHO declared suicide to be a public health priority but only 28 nations have followed suit. A small but important part of the problem is the language and the associated stigma we attach to suicide and mental health. “Commit suicide” –this phrase implies that it is a crime still punishable by law in some nations. Phrasing suicide in the framework of a crime further stigmatises individuals who are feeling suicidal. It implies that they should be ashamed of how they feel, and that they are consciously aware of their actions and making the decisions to do something morally wrong by their own volition. This kind of thinking is factually inaccurate. Like cancer or any other illness, mental health illnesses are not a choice. By blaming the individual and making them feel guilty it becomes very difficult for the person to feel empowered to seek help and try and improve their condition. Instead of saying commit suicide, you can say dying by suicide or complete suicide.
There is a fear of talking about suicide openly; people assume that asking someone whether they are suicidal will plant the idea in their head – this is of course is nonsense. If you are concerned about someone’s mental health the best thing you can do is talk to them – it could save their lives. Through acknowledging the situation you help strip away the stigma and can support the individual in seeking professional help. Ultimately, the language you use will indicate whether someone can approach you when they are in need. On a global level suicide needs to be decriminalised and mental health made a priority. Suicide should be something which is discussed openly and stripped of the guilt and blame associated with it. Not all suicides are preventable, and the path to recovery is not easy; however, reflecting on stigma attached to mental health by reconsidering the words we use is a step in the right direction.
English is a rich and beautiful language that has arguably more words than any other, so I ask you, why persist on using words, which hurt and stigmatise those who need that extra layer of sympathy and support. We all need to be more conscious of the language that we use, and aware of how our language shapes our society. In an idealistic fashion I propose, that we should be building bridges instead of walls, and strive for a more inclusive and accepting society. Language is one of the most powerful tools we as a species have developed. Thus I plea with you, do not take it for granted or neglect the influence that it can have. Ultimately, not only should we scrutinise the words that our leaders deploy, but we must take collective responsibility for the language that we use and the power it has.