The power of words carry weight.  We know this intuitively, but our actions don’t always reflect it.

 

We know from evidence that using negative words to describe oneself influences how we see ourselves on subjective topics like appearance, intellect, or ability.  This, naturally, leads to the erosion of self-worth.  Tell yourself enough times that you are worthless, or ugly, or unkind and you will soon start to believe it.

Debate is passionate in the psychological world about the impact of outside influence on our mental states.  Some people suffer from chemical imbalances that affect mood, some people are impacted by external factors that affect personality, and others are influenced by any number of intersections between them.  So it stands to reason that there is weight attached to labels, and that this deserves deeper analysis.

Suicidality and Criminality

Language has evolved when talking about complex psychosocial behaviours and acts.  In the past, when attempting to end one’s own life was considered a criminal act, it was deemed ‘committing suicide’.  But time has seen our fear and misunderstanding of suicide soften – it remains frightening, of course, but not malevolent.  Certainly not criminal.  Accordingly, advocates for mental health are campaigning for us to replace this outdated terminology with lesser-known, but more accurate options: ‘dying by suicide’, ‘ending their life’, ‘taking their life’, or even ‘completing suicide’.

These are not cuddly euphemisms, but an attempt to separate morality – and criminality – from action.  This allows those outside of this issue to stick to facts and avoid speculation or the post-mortem application of one’s own agenda to the actions of the deceased.  Though any life lost to - or impacted by - suicide is one too many, nobody should be Othered (perceived or treated as intrinsically different from everybody else) for it.  In fact, alienating people who are contemplating or who have attempted suicide actually aggravates negative self-perception, leading to thoughts such as: “Look how broken I am.  I don’t deserve to live if I can’t even find the motivation to.” What a heart-breaking feedback loop to accidentally encourage just by way of framing.

On ‘Cleanliness’

We see similar issues arise when discussing components of health that have morality attached.  To this end, we know some things to be true.

One is that, statistically speaking, almost all – if not all – sexually active people will contract at least one strain of human papilloma virus (HPV) in their lifetime.  Globally, two-thirds of the population under the age of 50 live with herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1).  And much of the struggle for people living with HIV/AIDS is rooted in social stigma and fear of judgement – an ingrained and outdated scaremongering of ‘doomed’ people with ‘dirty blood’.

Two is that the World Health Organisation estimated that at least 1 in 20 adults used at least one drug in the year 2014.  This means that not only are drugs and alcohol prevalent in our communities, they are often used by people we know and love.  Accordingly, it stands that for every person who is tarred with the brush of ‘addict’, there are many, many people who use recreational drugs and alcohol and do not experience dependence or dysfunction as a result of it, but are certainly not abstinent.

Have you ever noticed how, when somebody uses alcohol or drugs recreationally without experiencing some severe consequence for it, they downplay it as a ‘phase’, or ‘experimentation’? Why is it that these acts are diminished for those who are fortunate enough to avoid addiction, whilst those who do the exact same thing - yet develop dependence - are pigeonholed far more severely?  A person who experiments is merely playing at sin; a person who becomes addicted is considered a moral stain on society.

I posit these examples because there is a commonality between sexual health and addiction: They both rely on the word ‘clean’ to signify someone who does not live with infection, illness, or addiction.  There is harm in using this word as a marker for health.  This is also why we no longer use the term sexually-transmitted disease (STD) – because not all sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) are permanent, incurable, or even at a scientific level, diseases!

To say someone who is not living with addiction or STIs is ‘clean’ is to suggest that the alternative is ‘dirty’.  Research indicates that feelings of shame and self-loathing are deeply intertwined with poor mental health and addiction, so to imply that people are ‘dirty’ actually makes the treatment, recovery, and destigmatization we are trying to encourage all the more difficult.

Conclusion 

People living with STIs are not inherently suffering from HIV, or gonorrhoea, or herpes.  People living with or recovering from addiction do not deserve to be perpetually branded as a moral failure.  Suicidality is not a crime, but an epidemic – and we must treat it with the same compassion and evidence-based practice that we do for all other illnesses.

Every health condition is manageable with the right care, support, and when necessary, medication.  But the words we use to describe the world around us – and the people within it – matter when it comes to health.  The consequences of language can either enable people to live fulfilling lives, or rob them of agency, identity, and even their humanity.

So the next time we converse about a hot-button issue, let’s think for a moment about the way we frame our perspective… Because no person should be defined by their darkness.

 

About the Author.