Why I Love Labels, Part 2

Labels are limits. Labeling a child is limiting her. Children, disobedient as they may sometimes be, listen. So why would any parent want to label her child as mentally ill?

A label saved my life. A term, and a list of defining traits that flattened my complex human emotion into bullet points, saved me from a waking nightmare. I can’t overstate it. Words are pure magic.

Labels are limits, and they limited my panic. Knowing its name gave me power over it.

As an educator, I’ve been taught to use what’s called “people-first language” when describing disabilities, impairments, and differences. People-first means you say the person before the label: person with Autism instead of Autistic person. The idea, of course, is that people needn’t be defined by their conditions. If you read my blog or scan my website or follow me on Twitter, you’ll notice that I say “anxious kids” at least as often as I say “kids with anxiety.” First of all, it’s much shorter (and, on Twitter, that’s hugely important). But, more than that, I’m okay with using “label-first” language to describe my students because they are to some extent defined by their illness. And so am I. Anxiety didn’t happen to me. Anxiety is me. I have facets and layers and contradictions (upcoming post topic!) like everyone, but I can’t deny that the “self” that I acknowledge as “me” could not exist independent from childhood anxiety. Calm, prepared, responsible adult Kiri grew from panicked child Kiri, both because panic forced me to learn life skills that other adults lack and because my brain simply has anxiety wired into it.

Some modes of therapy encourage patients/clients to imagine their illnesses as separate from themselves, and I find this tactic extremely useful, especially in children. However, I believe that it’s important to ensure that this kind of thinking doesn’t lead to self-stigmatizing. I am more than my anxiety, but I am my anxiety. I once had a peer ask, “how do I know what is my [mental] illness and what’s me?” While I understand and respect her question, the truth is, brains don’t work like that. Mental illness is, as far as we can tell, pretty complex. An anxiety disorder can’t be cut out like a tumor. Rather than trying to identify a disease-free self, we should focus on becoming as healthy as we can be.

I believe that teaching children to identify and label their symptoms and conditions is the single best thing you can do to facilitate recovery. However, there are definitely some risks involved in labeling children. Children (and adults) may internalize the limitations implicit in their labels and thus impede their own success. A child diagnosed with an anxiety disorder might, for example, believe that he cannot take risks. Part three of this series will include the exercises I use to combat self-limiting in my students, and myself!

This post continues the theme of the disclosure and destigmatization of mental illness. For more information about stigma, check out the Stand Up for Mental Health campaign by HealthyPlace.

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