SUPPORT – An Introduction to Promoting Understanding through Language

By Gill Jardine, Counsellor/Psychotherapist

Language, as we know, is a tool. We use this tool to communicate, to connect with one another, to share the experience of our individual lives. This clearly has the ability to be a very powerful tool which can be used positively or indeed negatively. The majority of us are able to use language and we each choose how we use it and with whom. Our first experience of language is often hearing our mother or father talking to us. This ‘talking’ is hopefully delivered with warmth, kindness, gentleness and appropriateness but of course it could be with impatience, criticism and threat.  As a baby, we hear the words and sense the manner in which they are said so beginning our journey of understanding, and being able to use language ourselves.

There will inevitably be a huge difference in a child’s understanding and use of language depending upon their own young linguistic experiences. Whilst babies may be born with the same lack of language (depending on whose cognitive developmental theory you consider), certainly they all arrive to their first day of school with a very different number of words and amount of understanding – just one of the many challenges faced by Early Years teachers. However, it is not just the amount of words they know, or the understanding of those words that is evident when they arrive – it is also their behaviour towards their teachers and their peers.  If the child has grown up this far with kind words and patience, they will likely show some confidence and some ability to communicate even in this new situation. The child who has only heard criticism and impatience will likely show reticence and will hold back from joining in with the adults encountered in this new setting. Very young children are not inclined to make much connection with their peers anyway – they are egocentric meaning that see themselves as the centre of their world and have little interest in other little children.

Throughout childhood, teenage years and adolescence we continue to develop our use of language in preparation for the adult world. Of course, that learning will carry on through adulthood.

The important point to note here is that each individual will take the experience of their childhood into adulthood. In other words, what was familiar to them as a young child, will also be familiar later in life. Obviously this has many connotations – good and bad. In fact it is one of the factors we need to  consider when looking at maintaining good mental health.

Communication seems to be difficult when we are physically unwell. It is hard to describe symptoms and difficult to know if the doctor has really understood. ‘Pain’ is almost impossible to explain, the type of pain, the intensity of pain, exactly where the pain is – all so hard to share. I wonder why? Perhaps we are stumbling upon the limits of language. We only have a finite number of words available with which to communicate our message. This leads me to the question of communicating when we are mentally unwell. We often don’t feel like talking. We feel disconnected and isolated – how can we possibly communicate feeling like this? We tend to stay at home, stay away from friends and family, feel we can’t cope with encountering work colleagues. So what happens to communication here – well, it is difficult to achieve leaving us feeling alone and miserable. This brief consideration makes it clear that language has an influence of mental health.

So, what can we do about it? I suggest look for a way to clarify understanding with other people. How can we do this? A conversation about what words actually mean to us. If you take the word ‘sad’ and ask six people to write down what that word means to them, they will all write something different making it abundantly clear that we are not necessarily in tune – not necessarily really understanding one another. This is an exercise that can be done at home. Choose three ‘feeling’ words and ask each member of the family, or each friend to describe that word. It will be surprising how different are the descriptions. If we gradually have these conversations, increasing our understanding of each other we may feel freer in what we say with less fear of misunderstanding.

Writing down our feelings can be very helpful. Thoughts that go round and round in our heads are likely to stop if written down freeing our minds from unsatisfactory circles. There are choices about what to do with the writing. It can be destroyed, kept in the drawer, shared with friends and family. Of course, in this way, each individual uses language in their own way to describe what they may be going through. Minds Anonymous has been set up to give an opportunity to write about mental health experiences without fear of anybody knowing the identity of the writer. This has double advantages in that the writer remains anonymous but other people get the chance to read about what others have been through helping them feel less isolated and alone – a really great idea for everyone.

This has been a very brief look at language and mental health but may have at least provoked some thinking about what we hear and how we hear it, and what we say and how we say it. As I said at the beginning language is a powerful tool which is in our hands. Could we use it better with a little more thought and responsibility by those who are able?