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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Honoring Diversity in Our Ranks: Language Use

03/10/16 02:05 PM | Gloria Dickerson | Diversity, Resiliency

Language diversity

The choice of words we use to identify people with experiences of mental illness, trauma, substance use, and homelessness frames our thinking and guides our actions. Our language reflects how we view other people and honor their diversity. Those served in mental health or substance use services and those who are homeless represent a heterogeneous group. The use of non-discriminating and non-stigmatizing language respects the unique strengths of people using services as well as their diversity of choices, preferences, and rights (Learn more about the importance of language in human service settings.)

The commitment to “getting it right” and arriving at a consensus on language that is accurate, non-stigmatizing, and unifying is a heartfelt goal of providers and many people participating in programs. Sometimes vigorous discussions erupt and can become contentious leading to conflicts that divide rather than unify. These controversies can lead individuals, even those with good intentions, to get so angry that they use language that results in opposition to others and start cycles of the blame game. Finding the right language is important so that we avoid unnecessary divisions and strife. We have more in common than our differences. 

The reality is that language is at best an approximation that may or may not come close to our meaning. It is one of the tools that we use to make our case and reach shared understanding. Building consensus on language use and ways to express different views may be one of the best ways to arrive at tolerance. Tolerance and understanding may be what is missing!

As a consumer/peer/survivor or provider/staff/support person we can become side tracked from our mission. We all know that words can get in the way of connecting and providing help to others. And still, we can be so invested in our choice or opinion that we forget others may have the same zeal around their choices. Differences of opinion can still be delivered in a respectful manner.

I believe the work we are trying to do, as peers and as allies, should be reflected by our choice of words. This does not mean that we can’t differ and voice our opinion. On the contrary, we can hold strong opinions, but must think carefully about the words or phrases we use to express them. However, we work best when our opinion, albeit strong, does not get in the way of our work and our relationships with others. 

We must begin to engage in open dialogues to listen to and understand the sources of our differences and then discuss why we hold a particular belief. Dialogues filled with mutual respect and understanding are essential. In the end, the other person may not be convinced about our perspective, but if delivered in a respectful manner, that is okay. We can have spirited conversations that contribute new ideas and work towards mutual understanding if we are thoughtful about how we express ourselves.

Individual differences, personal choice, self-direction, and preferences are all hallmarks of recovery. I would add tolerance to the list. Please consider that the range of diversity of ideas regarding the use of language and preferences is part of the process of respecting our diverse paths. It is beneficial to have diversity in our ranks! A vigorous discussion honors real differences. We can look beneath the words to find the meaning, especially if these words are delivered respectfully.

Cross-education about preferences and learning about the reasons for a particular choice is a critical part of our growth as a culture that includes and honors difference. Respectful differences are often reflected in our thoughtful use of language.

Hear more from Gloria by listening in to this "Lived Experience: A Transformative Force," a t3 podcast:

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Image by Valery Kenski (cc by 2.0).

Gloria Dickerson

Written by Gloria Dickerson

Gloria Dickerson is a Recovery Specialist at the Center for Social Innovation. Her expertise in recovery derives from academic training and lived experience of recovery from trauma, mental illness, and homelessness. Gloria received a B.S. from Tufts University and has completed master’s level studies in Instructional Design and Psychiatric Rehabilitation.