Mental health and the power of words

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The following article was submitted by Paula Ramsay, a spouse of a serving Canadian Armed Forces member who has battled with an Operational Stress Injury. She is one of the co-founders of the Caregivers’ Brigade, and has completed the Social Service Worker program at Algonquin College.

Ms. Ramsay was recently presented with a Liz Hoffman Memorial Commendation, awarded for her efforts to bring about positive and lasting change in the defence community. Liz Hoffman was an investigator with the Ombudsman’s office who had a deeply rooted sense of fairness and was a tremendous force for positive change. This commendation allows the Office to recognize those in the Defence community who, like Ms. Hoffman, are dedicated to helping others and making a difference.

Reducing stigma with regard to mental health injuries is a systemic responsibility. Many programs, services, and groups are contributing to a change in perceptions on a macro level, and are often making great strides. Stigma can also be reduced on a micro level, through an effort made each day from members of the civilian and military populations. It often doesn’t require a huge gesture, but simple adjustments in the way we communicate.

Stigma is displayed mainly through comments and gestures that exhibit a lack of understanding. For a member diagnosed with a mental wound, it can be overwhelming to feel the need to change societal perceptions. The display of caring attitudes toward our ill and injured will positively influence many perceptions. The use of relevant and correct terminology in association to a mental diagnosis, instead of phrases that have the potential of causing additional harm, can help to reduce stigma within the CAF, increase morale in the workplace, and offer wounded members better potential for recovery.

Throughout history, across cultures and societies, words have evolved in meaning. The use of certain words and phrases evolves with attitudes and expectations. Words surrounding the concept of mental health are no exception. As CAF members have, in recent years, been speaking more openly and willingly about their own struggles, and express that they don’t feel they have a mental illness, but are more willing to admit to having a mental injury. Preference is often given to the term Operational Stress Injury, as opposed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For many, the term disorder implies illness rather than injury, often causing those that receive a diagnosis of PTSD to prefer to drop the ‘D’.

This is just one example of the importance of assessing wording that is specific, which produces the complimentary effect of decreasing the possibility of adding insult to injury.

Effective communication is essential in the CAF. Orders must be clear and concise for members to accomplish tasks at the highest operational standard. A gap in dialogue for an order being passed through the chain of command can have detrimental consequences on the objective. The same can be said for comments made about a mental diagnosis. Language that promotes stigma may deter a member from seeking assistance and impair their ability to receive needed treatment. Judgement and arrogance must be avoided. Stigma in the CAF can be reduced through actions: we must allow our communication practices to evolve and welcome positive change.

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