TRIGGER WARNING: Topics discussed in this article may be triggering for some readers.
Words have created beautiful stories and depictions that have enlightened and inspired creativity all around the world. Just as words can encourage and motivate, they can also cut, diminish, and ruin. Hateful and derogatory words create negativity that lead to barriers and stereotypes between many communities. Though these words are often used intentionally to hurt, many people carelessly use them out of context due to lack of thinking about the impact they can leave.
McNicholas School Psychologist Matt Musselman said that misuse of language is one of the most frequent poor choices in human behavior. “I feel we all make and have made poor behavior choices — language usage seems to be the most frequent. It is difficult to ‘slow down,’ be thoughtful and consider the impact of our words, especially when we are emotional and/or passionate. Hurtful comments absolutely impact self-image, confidence and overall well-being, intentional or not. Trendy terms [and] language are clearly overused and often not accurate to describe the message. Poor communication choices- language, chats, emojis, memes, or gestures reflect badly on the sender in the short and long term. They can be extremely painful for the receiver in ways the sender likely doesn’t realize,” Musselman said.
One of the most common examples of this in society deals with suicide. The phrase “I’m going to kill myself,” is used multiple times a day by many, almost in a joking manner. This phrase is used to express frustration with some of the most insignificant complications of life, from failing a test to missing a job deadline to even the simplest of things like forgetting car keys. This has and will continue to create significant problems for people suffering from mental illness and the stereotypes surrounding them.
“I think this phrase should not be used nearly as much as it is. I think it could be very triggering for people who have lost friends or relatives to suicide or other reasons. I feel like people often use it when they are stressed or anxious about some event, but they don’t really mean it which distracts from when people say it and do mean it,” senior Lainey Doggett said.
According to the World Health Organization, close to 800,000 people die from suicide every year. With this data, it implies that six or more people are affected by each of these deaths. This further implies the damaging effects that saying a phrase such as “I want to kill myself” has on those who have suffered from losing someone to suicide, along with those who have their own thoughts of self-harm. The overuse of this phrase overshadows those who actually feel suicidal because it makes them look like overreacting attention-grabbers, which is never the case when dealing with any mental illness. Conversely, it desensitizes us to hearing these words. Someone might be saying them with intent to harm themselves, but we are immune to the phrase due to its lackadaisical overuse for trivial matters.
Director of Counseling Alaina Way gave her perspective as a counselor of what it is like to hear these triggering words. “When people say ‘Oh I am going to kill myself’ as a joke, as adults, we take all of it seriously. We cannot just assume that someone is joking,” Way said.
Another word that is used frequently within society deals with intellectual disabilities. There are many forms of intellectual disabilities including Down Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome. According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, an intellectual disability is diagnosed by an IQ score of 70 and below and by deficits in adaptive behaviors necessary for day to day life. There is no cure for intellectual disability, but early intervention can help an individual lead a fuller, more independent life. An array of interventions such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, family counseling, and training with assistive devices can be used to achieve this goal. Those diagnosed with this condition are anything but what society carelessly stereotypes.
Intellectual disability was once called mental retardation. Unfortunately, mental retardation began to develop a negative connotation due to the careless words that were thrown around in our society. The common use of the r-word has created many stigmas that have greatly impacted those with this disability and those surrounding them. The r-word is degrading, cruel, and hurtful to all involved and further perpetuates stereotypes. It is hurtful whether it is directed to a person with this disability and when it is used as a synonym for something that is considered to be “dumb” or “stupid.” A change was placed in October of 2010 when Congress passed Rosa’s Law which changed the term mental retardation to intellectual disability. The Federal Register stated, “Advocates for individuals with intellectual disability have rightfully asserted that the term ‘mental retardation’ has negative connotations, has become offensive to many people, and often results in misunderstandings about the nature of the disorder and those who have it.”’ Rosa’s Law helped start an important movement to help fight against the stereotypes placed on this disability.
Another example of society helping to break negative stigmas is through a campaign called Spread the Word. Spread the Word is a global campaign working towards inclusivity with those who have intellectual disabilities along with those with developmental disabilities. It acknowledges the exclusion the use of the r-word has one those and calls to eliminate the word completely from our society. This organization allows people to pledge to acknowledge the use of the r-word and its hurtful effects to its community. The pledge also encourages people to be respected with their words to try to build a world filled with positivity and love.
These hurtful words in society are a part of many others that cause divisions and stereotypes that damage communities around the world. Other words that many say that can cause such negativity and sadness in the world involve race, gender, sexuality, cultures, and religion.
Way stated, “I have had several students over my ten years as a school counselor reveal to me that they identify as LGBTQ and they have all mentioned that when other people, not just students, but people in society say ‘Oh that is gay’ it really hurts their feelings.”
Simply having a conversation with someone can help change the way others use their words. Acknowledging the problem can help others learn and understand and be aware of the hurtful they may be using carelessly. The way we use our language matters. Everyone must think before they say something that perpetuates hate or stereotypes. The world already has many divisions, but these words will continue to create new barriers if there is not a stop to them. Words can cause more harm than many weapons. They cannot be unheard. We must think of who is listening. We must strive to inspire people by our words and not diminish them.