The Power of Words

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  So goes the childhood lesson commonly taught in this country, to help kids deal with the foolish and often mean name-calling that is an unfortunate part of growing up among other children.

As a temporary defense strategy, reciting this lesson to oneself may sometimes work or at least  help resist the urge to raise the ante, but in the long run it fails because the basic premise is totally false.  Words are very, very powerful, and we are subject to their power our entire lives.  And we must learn to deal, each in our way.  So it is always encouraging when the larger culture takes on this issue, such as recently noted in the news regarding drug addiction.  This is a tough one, worthy of attention.  The associated emotions of shame and pain, anger and desperation and hopelessness (there are more) pack the language of substance dependence with extraordinary power.  “Crackhead” “ Junkie” “ Lush” “ Alky” “ Scum”  “Loser”  There are so many!  And all of them loaded with judgement and blame.  “Abuser” may be the most damning of all, its negative power well established through its use both by the public and professionals.

The news item gives us a quote from an authority in the field that hits the nail squarely on the head:  “Words have to change, so attitudes change.”  Ain’t it so!  But how?  One suggestion is to change the harmful, judgmental terms with medical terms, as in “substance use disorder”  which some say is more neutral and to the point.  This might be a good start, but medicalizing the lexicon has its own pitfalls.  Consider the history of the mental health lexicon in general, in all its confusing and colorful glory, with words like “insane” “nuts” “crazy” “loony” “daffy” “batty” “feeble-minded” “screwed-up” and many, many more.  All of them used to describe, in a totally inconsistent and confusing way, conditions ranging from mild depression and anxiety to psychosis.

The current trend is towards a kind of medicalized confusion, with terms like “bipolar” and the DSM alphabet soup of “ADD” “OCD” and “PTSD” part of everyone’s daily language, along with comments like “hey, you need meds.”  Does all this signify a change in cultural attitudes?  Has the language become less pejorative and less stigmatizing?  It is not at all clear.  Maybe a first small step forward would be in encouraging everyone to recognize that “they” – the addicted, as well as the many who suffer more painfully with their emotions and thoughts than the rest of us – are not all that different.  One might even consider that, essentially, there is no “we” and “them”;  there is only “us.”  Call it compassion.  Name those who suffer more what they actually are:  “people who are struggling” or maybe just “the vulnerable.”  Maybe we should just start with that.

John Dabrowski  LICSW
Neponset Health Center & Geiger Gibson Community Health Center
Harbor Health Services, Inc.


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