‘I do not have to acknowledge your existence’ – Mental health language

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Monday, January 28th, 2013
Harold A Maio, 75, is retired from teaching German and mental health editing, though he keeps a hand in both. Through art and German he has a lasting interest in expression, particularly in language. To him word is art, he likes to discern the meaning in word. Harold speaks to Newry Times this week about the use of mental health language. One of the most interesting obstacles I run into as I am pursuing respectful mental health language is “I do not have to acknowledge your existence”. It is a non-response I receive from various individuals, aspects of society as I pursue polite and most important accurate language, imagery.

Harold A Maio

I am not sure what stake anyone has in inaccuracy, but apparently many do. As we are learning more and more about mental illnesses, some people cling to old references, archaic references, wholly inaccurate references. Most puzzling to me are editors and reporters, and people in higher education, those people responsible for educating the next generation. The ethic of journalism is fact, innuendo and inaccuracy slip in. The ethic of education is fact, its practices are not always. Sometimes it is the prejudice of the reporter and editor, the professor, college president, and sometimes it is simply repeating language each perceives as expert. Education varies. Some of it comes from education systems, some from the street, vernacular employed as fact, some of it from government. Repeating it is all too easy. As I address the inaccuracies there seems to be no single major source. Many aspects of society participate. I suppose this is true of every societal prejudice. To be fully contractual messages must come from a myriad of sources, all converging upon the individual as a single ever present message. Repeat something often enough it will eventually be perceived as a truth. I e-mailed the president of Harvard asking, “Do you direct a ‘stigma’ at any disability group at Harvard. She responded, “I hope not”. I sent her several examples I noted there, she ceased to respond. “I do not have to acknowledge you exist.” Nonetheless I do exist, and I pursue change at Harvard as I pursue change everywhere. A professor in Australia, a prominent mental health advocate there, responded to an e-mail that he had stopped assigning the term “stigma”. I asked him if he had begun to educate others not to do so, as recognized an advocate as he is. He did not respond. Another Australian professor appears to have stopped in print, I am not sure he has stopped in the classroom, he never responded. From several editors in the UK, and elsewhere in English speaking countries, I have received communications (e-mails, I work entirely over the net through e-mail), that they understand the prejudice in directing a “stigma’ on their pages, and will no longer do so. One editor in the UK needed only one letter from me, another needed several, but most simply uncritically continue, not acknowledging they are not tacitly repeating that prejudice, but through its presence on their pages are expressing it as their own prejudice. How does one address the claim of a “stigma”, a perceived difference so great it must be asserted that negatively? I do so with one simple question, “What do you mean by that?” A flow of responses will then issue from the person claiming the “stigma”, always concise, clear, concrete. Those responses help. Understanding the why behind a term frees one to address the why. What is the “difference” between a “you” and a “them”, for all the above apply to any such division. Man or woman, we are people. Seeing commonality leads to understanding. Seeing that particular commonality took hundreds of years. Many religions still struggle to see commonality, though religion is itself a commonality. We have only to acknowledge commonalities. Though societies have always struggled to see commonalities. Individuals have seem them, societies can. I have, you can.
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