The Power of Words

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of words. Words have the power to build a person up. To encourage and enrich our lives. To better our world. Words also have the power to damn and destroy a person. To deflate and suppress their hopes and dreams. To crush the growth of the human race.

Like computers, guns, hammers, rolling pins and the thousands of other tools at our disposal words can be used for good or for harm. I have been telling the kids since they were very little that how you say something is as important as what you say. The phrase “I love you” when said with affection is one of the most beautiful things a person can hear. But the same words, when expressed sarcastically or dripping with bitterness can be very damaging to the recipient.

It was this train of thought that led me to ponder about the words used to describe mental illness. Words like “loopy, loony, wacky, nutcase, bonkers”. I’m curious about the roots of these expressions so I have decided to create a weekly entry called “Word Wednesday”. Every Wednesday my goal will be to present a word or expression commonly used to describe mental illness and those who suffer from it. I think it will be an interesting lesson in the history of mental illness and the English language.

In my recent research I came across this online article entitled 250 Labels Used to Stigmatise People With Mental Illness. JACKPOT!!  The study was conducted in England at 5 different schools and asked 400 14-year-olds ‘What sorts of words or phrases might you use to describe someone who experiences mental health problems?’ Below are some comments from the article.

“More striking was the sheer range and emotional power of the words used (n = 250) showing both a remarkable virtuosity (encroaching upon the vulgar) and a lack of precision in how students expressed themselves when speaking about people with mental illness (see Table ​Table33).

How do young people learn such wide-ranging, emotionally-charged and negative terms about mental illness? The primary sources appear to be from the media, and from family and peers [4446]. Derogatory references about people with mental illness appear commonly in the print, broadcast and cinematographic media [47,48]. For television and newspaper items about mental illness, for example, between one third and two thirds refer primarily to violence [25]. The highest rate of such negative coverage occurs in children’s animations, where up to two-thirds of all references are to violence [49,50]. Interestingly, almost a half (46%) of all the episodes contained some reference to mental illness, especially in cartoons, where the vocabulary analysed in one New Zealand study was ‘predominantly negative fundamentally disrespectful. The characters were typically losing control, constantly engaged in illogical and irrational actions’, and were ‘stereotypically and blatantly negative, and served as objects of amusement, derision or fear.’ [50] Children’s programmes in the USA have produced almost identical results, where the images were ‘typically used to disparage and ridicule‘ [44,51]. More specifically, a Canadian study examined Disney animated films for children and found that 85% contained verbal references to mental illness and they were mainly used to ‘set apart and denigrate’ the characters [52].”

I have chosen a list of 30 or so of the 250 words/expressions from this study as my starting point for my Word Wednesday endeavour but I would be very grateful for any contributions or suggestions from my readers for future Word Wednesday posts. If you’re curious about a word or phrase describing mental illness just send it to me. I’m more than happy to research it and post about it!

Today’s word is “Lunatic”. I figured we’d start off with an oldie but a goody.

Lunatic – The word derives from the Latin lunaticus meaning “of the moon” or “moonstruck”. Philosophers such as Aristotle and Pliny the Elder argued that the full Moon induced insanity in susceptible individuals, believing that the brain, which is mostly water, must be affected by the Moon and its power over the tides, but the Moon’s gravity is too slight to affect any single person.[1] Even today, people insist that admissions to psychiatric hospitals, traffic accidents, homicides or suicides increase during a full Moon, although there is no scientific evidence to support such claims.[1] (from Wikipedia)

I read somewhere that the reason we associate higher percentages of unusual behaviours during the full moon is because we’re more aware of the lunar cycle, not because the lunar cycle is affecting us. Well, maybe that’s true but my experience tells me the old theory holds more water (pardon the pun). During a full moon the Madhouse is just that – a Madhouse. No one sleeps well. My son becomes excessively hyper and both my daughter and I become extremely irritable (maybe that’s just PMS though. Hmmm, I’ll have to pay more attention to that next full moon).

Well readers, I hope you enjoyed the first installment of Word Wednesday. Don’t forget to “like” the Madhouse!

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About Holly

I hope you're able to glean something from this blog, a nugget of wisdom, a new perspective, a smile or even a laugh. I enjoy getting feedback so please comment, share your story with me too. After all, we're here to help each other.
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7 Responses to The Power of Words

  1. Jonathan Taylor says:

    That’s a long project!

    I had a poem on the subject once about the origin of the word “autism”; it first appears in “The American Journal of Insanity” long since renamed “The American Journal of Psychiatry.”

  2. Holly says:

    Hopefully I can keep up with it. As you know, ADHDers sometimes have a problem with follow-through.

    I’m glad they had the decency to change the name of the journal! I’d love to read the poem though. I saw the most amazing news story today about an autistic girl in Toronto who has wowed the medical community over the last few years. I posted it to Surviving The Madhouse page on Facebook if you want to watch. Really cool stuff.

  3. Jonathan Taylor says:

    Poem’s here–meant to include the link:

    http://splinterskills.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/on-the-self/

  4. Holly says:

    Thanks, Jonathan! Very powerful imagery in that poem.

  5. Jonathan Taylor says:

    Thanks for posting that video as well—very moving. My son is verbal, but in a limited way and is often frustrated and overwhelmed. He covers his ears and does arm flapping as well. He can type and write, but only writes whatever someone else tells him to; we haven’t had a big breakthrough like that. For the most part, though, he’s happy and healthy.

  6. Holly says:

    Healthy and happy are the most important things!! I’m sure he also knows he’s loved for who he is, and that makes all the difference in the world especially for special needs kids. Keep up the good work!

  7. Pingback: Wednesday, July 7, 2012 | survivingthemadhouse

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