Thursday, May 8, 2014

#SAcommits: The trouble with language

The Student Affairs Collaborative started a very admirable project to keep mental health at the forefront of conversation throughout May, both in terms of our work in student development and as working professionals. I genuinely applaud those who started the blog posts and the brought the conversation forward.

But I have a problem with language. The hashtag chosen for this initiative is #SAcommits.
#SAcommits. Commits. When talking about mental health. I understand the pun - that by getting involved we are committing to an important conversation. But "committing" someone, as we all know, is also the term for putting someone into what is usual involuntary treatment for any variety of mental health challenges.

My problem is not with the project - I think it's vital and it's a conversation that does not happen enough. My problem is with language. Too often we excuse the use of language when it benefits us. If an organization we didn't like decided to use the term "commit" in such a way, we'd swiftly and harshly condemn them for not understanding their point of privilege if they haven't struggled with depression or anxiety. The use of the term (I'm assuming) is to convey the message to the broad audience and increase basic understanding of mental health issues. By while attempting to spread the message to the widest possible audience, a term is being used that is most often connected to the negative stigmas around mental health to the broadest audience of people. 

The argument was made that it is the profession's way of "reclaiming" that word to use in more positive ways. I understand reclaiming words - it defuses the power of the word and (ideally) changes our understanding of it and society's acceptance of it. But the problem with reclaiming words in this way is that we then get offended when someone else uses it in the way we find offensive. The whole "We're allowed to use it this way, but others should not" argument. And Twitter is a constantly flowing stream of information - so those jumping in and seeing it without context for the creation of the hashtag (something I have yet to see, by the way, thanks to an inability to read all Tweets all the time ever) may also be put off or misunderstand what is a well-intentioned attempt at changing the meaning of a commonly used term.

The stories that have been shared are incredible and powerful and will be helpful to so many readers. I truly commend those who have been brave enough to share their lives and struggles. But there are very few of us who truly understand or have experienced the commonly understood meaning of the term "committed." Sure, we work with students (and even colleagues) who are committed temporarily for treatment, but there is a big difference between continued therapy to navigate mental illness (a privilege many don't have - even in this country) and what we usually mean when we say "committed." To blur the line between the two in order to have a catchy or punny hashtag is irresponsible.

What about #SAwellbeing or #SAhealth or #SAmentalhealth?

I know very little about mental health aside from what I've learned in my job training and experienced at work and perhaps that's where I fall short in my understanding of this use of language. I want to engage in this conversation. I really do. But as long as #SAcommits is the hashtag and the central identity of the conversation, I just can't do it. 


Clare said...

I have thought about this too. As a person who deals with mental illness, I thought about whether or not I was going to engage in conversation that had such a connotation. I came up with this: we don't have these conversations. We need to have them. I'd rather they be imperfect than silenced.

I think part of the conversation is to grapple with language, and to point out how it impacts people and our realities. I appreciate you bringing this up. I'd love to hear more of what you have to say.

Unknown said...

Hi Charlie,

First off, thank you for posting this. I appreciate your attention to the title and commitment to the conversation. Kristen and I released a podcast this week about the series to answer some questions that came up. After reflecting on your comments, I am hoping you would venture to listen to the podcast.

Voices like yours are needed in this conversation. I am, by no means, an 'expert' and truly appreciate thought processes that challenge my own. I hope you join us in the conversation soon.

Many thanks!

Unknown said...

So I'm just stumbling on this post now, and I'm sorry if this is too outdated of a response. As someone who participated in the series and the planning process of choosing a title I will admit that when I first saw that they'd chose to go with Committed it threw me off. I wasn't thrilled and went back and forth with a little internal struggle. Through that I realized that there is some language that we do need to take back. Committed, yes an intentional pun, also meant more than that. We just weren't a collective group of people poking fun at a serious issue, but we were a group of people that in someway was directly affected. To me I took back the word committed. I didn't put the stigma to it. I didn't make it negative. For me #SACommits no longer was a pun it became more. It's about being committed to the conversation and the cause of keeping the discussion going. I'm committed to sharing information and engaging with others on this issue, and I think others involved are as well.