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Executive Director's Blog

Sarah Cannon

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Language - Friend or Foe

Language - Friend or Foe

It has been an interesting experience realizing the potential for using the proper language in so much of what we do, as well as the potential negative impacts and barriers language that is not properly understood or interpreted can have on one's vision, goals, activities, and hopes. I have realized that many of us, while using the same language, still need interpretation, or to be conscious of the possible misinterpretation of words that can quite possibly hold different meanings and represent different outcomes depending on the audience. This is true in life, but also I have come to realize so overwhelmingly present in the Child and Youth Mental Health sector as a whole.

While we are all working towards the same end goals, and all have the same basic priority, we still all seem to interpret issues, phrases, concepts, so much differently, and I have found that often times we find ourselves negotiating terms of contracts, or debating phrasing of messaging, or just communicating issues about our children using language we assume means the same to everyone, only to find out that indeed the words we are using themselves are sometimes barriers to the conversation and agenda moving forward. It continually surprises me how often I have discovered that so many of us are arguing a point, and when you drill down to help discover what the core of the debate is, it is realized that really both sides have the same exact intention, but the words that each side is using carries different meaning on each side, and therefore the core of the issue itself is felt to be at odds with one another.

Here is a simple example: my mom now texts, and one day after I text her and ended my phrase with LOL - she called me to say that it made no sense that I had used LOL in that context. When I asked why, her response "well why would you be saying lots of love after a comment like that?" It made me realize that we become so entrenched in our work and our personal understanding of our issues, or points, and we use language that is so embedded in us we just assume that everyone knows what we mean, that we often forget that what to us is a simple phrase, acronym, statement, can mean so many different things. When I explained to my mother that LOL in text world meant Laugh Out Loud, she laughed and said, oh well now so many of your texts make more sense to me. I had bothered to take the time to teach my mom about how you send and retrieve texts, and spent the time and patience required to allow her to become comfortable with the process, but never once did it occur to me that the language she would often need to interpret was foreign to her, and never once did it occur to her that the standard acronyms that she may have grown up with could mean something very different in cyberworld.

I find an abundance of this same misinterpretation going on in so many conversations about Children's Mental Health. For example, here is a word I myself have debated at many a committee table - Prevention - this is a term that is being used a lot in messaging, and programming, and a term that for me is a controversial one. Many people would say why on earth would such a positive thing be so controversial to me - well, for me the word Prevention carries with it a connotation that my daughter's illness could somehow have been prevented (like taking Vitamin C at the onset of a cold, or having the chicken pox vaccine so she did not get the chicken pox). I have always been told that nothing I did or did not do was the cause of her illness - so how then could it have been prevented? AND what message does it send to those who already believe that diagnoses of children's mental illness is just a parent's way of excusing bad behaviour or bad parenting skills, so they slap a label on it to alleviate their own responsibility. To me, that is what the word Prevention in combination to Children's Mental Illness stirs up. Is that what is being suggested by the service providers, professionals, or agencies who include such language in their messaging? Probably not, I am sure their intention is not to suggest that it is my fault, or I could have done something to prevent it, and I am sure the embedded mother's guilt I will always carry because my child is ill plays a large part in my strong reaction to such a word - but therein lies the problem. If I am being asked to support messaging with this word included - what should my role be - what should the role of those I am working with be?

Not only do simple one-word phrases get bogged down in all the emotional, technical, and social "stuff" we all carry around individually, but so do concepts, what support means to one can mean something completely different to someone else. What the benefit of a Policy Ready Paper is to one could be meaningless to another - does that make the work less valid? Does it mean we should not work together to reach mutual benefit from concepts, recommendations, papers etc?

I think that if we are all going to be truly committed to ensuring a better future for our children, this is a big part of what we need to consider in ourselves personally, we need to really examine what language we use, why certain concepts, phrases, words, bring out the responses in us they do, and we need to be willing to discuss with those we work with the reasons and acknowledge the emotion, and basis for our impressions. We should commit to not dismissing something on the sole basis of one word in a phrase, or a concept that has not been clearly explained in our own mind. We need to be committed to truly collaborating and understanding what it is that each other is saying. Before we enter long debates, and erect barriers to navigate around, lets determine if indeed the core of the debate is a fundamental component to the negotiation or discussion, or is it the wording, have we understood each other, do we know the real reasons behind the debate? Positive listening skills and communication skills are the bedrock for everything we do from our parenting, to being a good and supportive partner in life and in business, our employment, our social networking, so we should be keenly aware and prepared to put in the effort required to establish a common language that we can utilize to the betterment of services and systems, not to act as further barriers to why things cannot be done.

As is often quoted - "I am not complaining....just reporting" These are merely observations, not accusations, and if anything, I know I am very guilty of not ensuring I clearly understand the message before reacting to it more times than not. So it is one thing I have learned I need to personally work on and remain aware of as we progress along the journey of awareness, advocacy, and collaboration.

Add comment 2010-06-03 Sarah Cannon

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I just wanted to say thank you to you and the governing body at PCMH. The newsletters are an important source of knowledge and support. I have found that this journey in … Member, St. Thomas