When words matter

A few weeks ago, I asked readers of this blog to choose what I should write about next. As my response to the top choice, I wrote about racism and the future, in a short story called The Box, which you can read here and here. Today, by combining the next top two choices, I’ve written a piece about mental health and words. I hope you find it interesting.

When words matter

Sometimes, when I’m feeling low, I slump down into a chair and wonder – if I should go out for a walk, read a book, eat chocolate, or go over this list of options in my head again. It may take me a while before I decide what to do. It can take so long that I end up asleep – which I have found is sometimes a good idea and sometimes a bad idea. Roughly, it’s good if I am physically exhausted – for example, after a long walk.   But – if my tiredness is due to feeling sad – then it’s better to get up and do something. If I can’t decide on an option, it may be because I’m having one of those sparooglified days. OK, that wasn’t a real word, but it is now: it means sad and anxious. Anyway, on one of those kinds of days, the best solution may be an unexpected one. Such as a cat materialising out of nowhere.

“Nergal! I nearly had a heart attack” I tell our not- bothered cat, who has appeared on my lap. She appeared so suddenly that I glance up nervously, worried she may have dropped through a hole in the ceiling. But there was no hole in the ceiling. I looked down at her as she stretched out on top of me purring loudly.

“I was trying to write a blog” I muttered, a bit huffily. It sounded unconvincing, even to me. Nergal slowly raised one cat-eyebrow. I suppose she was thinking: No, delusional human, you were not trying to write anything. You were feeling sorry for yourself, but there’s no need to, because you have a wonderful cat. Feel appropriately lucky! I stroked the cat and felt quite lucky. The indicator on my internal mental health meter had definitely moved more towards happy than sad. As I sat, with Nergal purring and closing her eyes to go to sleep, I started to think about mental health.

Is good mental health just the absence of bad feelings? Or is it the absence of mental illness? Do we tend to have good mental health when our lives are going well? When we have friends, family, love, and all the food we need, shelter, a job, or some kind of education which doesn’t sap our will to live? Do all these kinds of things tend to give us good mental health? Or do we need other things too- like purpose or meaning or freedom?

Don’t expect me to try to answer these big questions right now. Hey, I’ve got a gently snoring cat on my lap, and sometimes she is making a tiny whistling sound, like a wee fairy train, so I’m not in the mood for answering big, heavy questions. I’m much too relaxed. If I was a surfer, I’d be calling everyone “dude” and making my way to the nearest big waves. But despite deciding not to think too hard, it does occur to me that: yes, if our lives are full of life-enhancing stuff, then our mental health is likely to be at some level of ‘good’.

After Nergal has grown bored of using me as a pillow, and decides to sleep at the window instead, in a pool of cat-warming sunshine, I get up and go across to my desk, where I dumped a pile of books and articles to help me write about mental health and words. I pick up one article about ‘the biopsychosocial model’. My expression is less than riveted. I place the article down gingerly at the side on the desk, and one by one I look through the pile of books, all the time my attitude going from mild interest to puzzlement to “hey dude, I’d really rather be surfin’”. No, this isn’t working. If I carry on like this, I’ll end up heading out to the beach with an ironing board as a surfboard, and I might even forget – I can’t really swim. So, if I’m going to write about anything today, it will have to start with something I already know. Then, once I start, I can look up things I’m not sure about. Nergal meows her agreement from the window-sill, or perhaps she has just noticed a meal flying by outside.

What we call each other matters. Remember the old saying: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me”? That’s fine – if someone helps you to overcome being called “fatso”, when you’re 8 years old, but if the name you are called is so personally harmful to you that it makes you want to die, then the word has become a stick or a stone or a knife.

It’s not only school bullies who use words as weapons. Racist abuse is hurled at people every day on the streets and in pubs. Black Lives Matter will continue to be a slogan with power and relevance for as long as racists use words and more vicious weapons to harm our brothers and sisters.

So, words can play havoc with our mental health. It’s not only racists who use words to damage people.  Perpetrators of domestic violence, usually men, often break the confidence of individual women, by hurling words like – ‘useless’, ‘ugly’, or ‘worthless’, along with all the usual swearing. When a woman and sometimes her children escape from an abuser, their damaged lives need time and help to heal – by getting a home, and by going on the long journey to rebuilding confidence. They need peace to turn their own story into a better story.

Years ago, I read a wonderful book by Leila Berg. She wrote a lot of children’s stories, but this book was for adults, although it was a true story about children. It was called Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School, published in 1968. Risinghill was a school in Islington, where corporal punishment was banned. Children from the poorest backgrounds were helped to thrive educationally. Until then, they were often ignored or subjected to endless punishments. The school was a brave experiment by a headmaster called Michael Duane. The blurb on the back of the book states: ‘It is a story in which the word ‘love’ occurs again and again, in neither a sentimental nor a titillating way, but as a key word in a basic conflict about the state education of children. It is a sad story, written in anger and without fear.’

The headmaster, and a large group of teachers, pupils and parents worked together for a few years to create a school of hope. Sadly, it was eventually shut down, by bureaucrats who did not like having words like ‘love’ and ‘hope’ thrown around by people who were supposed to keep quiet at the bottom of the heap.

An expert on the human voice, Patsy Rodenburg, who worked with famous actors like Ian McKellen, captured the problem well when she wrote in her book ‘The Right to Speak’ (1992): ‘many of us have been taught not to feel easy about expressing words and sounds openly. Our society likes to control the volume… it doesn’t want to hear the thoughts and opinions of certain groups like children, women and minorities.’

Powerful politicians and their officials are forever hoping that groups they look down upon will stay quiet. One such group is made up of people with disabilities and illnesses. The millions of people who  claim benefits in order to survive are viewed by some  politicians as a drain on the public purse. The former leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, led the war to cut the benefits of as many ill and disabled people as he could. Billions of pounds of benefits were taken from the poorest and most vulnerable individuals. Several million pounds were given to private companies to make this huge tragedy happen. The whole process was accompanied by the greatest public propaganda drive seen outside of a World War. Starving migrants, people who had lost their jobs, and people with life threatening diseases, were all called ‘scroungers’ in the media every day. Inevitably, suicides increased.

In one memorable incident, Iain Duncan Smith’s Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) were forced to give a half-hearted public apology. Not apologising for all their crimes, but just for one – for making up a story – that people whose benefits were sanctioned had phoned the DWP to say they were grateful to be left with nothing, as it had motivated them to try harder to get a job. Of course, those phone calls never happened. The propagandists made it up, and then they said they were sorry. But they kept on cutting benefits.

‘The biopsychosocial model’ is a theory – it’s a way of looking at illness as an interaction of biology, psychology, and social factors. In the hands of benefits assessors, it is a weapon. So, for example, consider back pain. A chipped spine, the result of a workplace accident, is likely to cause a great deal of pain. However, using the biopsychosocial model, a suitably trained benefits official can twist the evidence to argue that the pain reported by some sufferers is less real than the pain reported by others. It may involve saying that Mr Bloggs must have less pain than Mr Stamp, who also has back pain, because Mr Bloggs only receives a mild painkiller from his doctor, but Mr Stamp is on a high dose of morphine. If Mr Bloggs argues: “But my GP didn’t believe how much pain I was in”, the benefits official can always decide that the GP is right. After all, according to the biopsychosocial model, what’s real in one case might not be real in another.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because these are the daily assessments which determine if benefits are awarded or cut. The biopsychosocial model is the one preferred by the DWP because it is so easily used to deprive millions of people of access to benefits.

The wording around benefits law has also drastically changed over the last 10 or 20 years, in a way that can only be described as Orwellian. ‘Sicknotes’ are now called ‘fitness-notes’. ‘Benefits claimants’ are called ‘customers’.  ‘Invalidity benefit’ was replaced by ‘Employment and Support Allowance’. ‘Disability Living Allowance’ was replaced by ‘Personal Independence Payment’. So, illness and disability are no longer referred to, but work and individual ‘independence’ are. Along with the changes of name, there is a change in the design of benefits. Harder to get, easier to lose. People are no longer clearly classified for benefit purposes according to their illness or disability. Instead, bizarre phrases like ‘limited capacity for work’ are used to describe a wheelchair user or someone with cancer, and neither condition guarantees benefits. The era of mass testing and disallowance of benefits began with this mangling of words and it continues today. As a direct result of refusing to admit that ill people are ill, or people with disabilities have disabilities, and by cutting incomes as a result – the numbers of people using food banks has risen massively.

In Dundee, a long campaign by families affected by mental health difficulties and tragedy has resulted in the first official moves to set up a 24-hour crisis centre. The lives such a centre can save will only be saved because a community refused to be silent whilst our most vulnerable people suffered.

It sometimes seems that there will always be hard battles to fight, and that thought made me feel a bit sad and tired. But not for long. My son phoned from Sweden and told me about another chess tournament he is organising, including some of the world’s top players. Later, I asked Nergal if she wanted to go out into the garden, but she was far too busy sleeping. So, I put on a new hoodie which my daughter Rachel delivered the other day – it has ‘Mental Health Warrior’ emblazoned on the back. I felt ready for any battle! I headed downstairs. Outside, the sun blazed, and the sky was a very bright blue. I knew I could at last go to a café or to a charity shop, but I wasn’t sure which one to start with. As I wandered down the Hilltown, I thought: I’ll go and buy a second hand book first; and then I’ll get a seat in a café. And then, I could decide to read or to write. And I felt happy to have that choice. We all make our own stories, and in all the battles we face together – our words help us to fight, and heal, and move forward.


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