The power of language
In establishing trustful and safe spaces it is essential to be mindful of the language you use. Language can create or destroy a safe environment in peer support. This means we must choose our words carefully and recognise the impact they can have, especially on women. It is vital that women are given choices about the language that is used about them and that they use in the group. Women who display leadership qualities can be stereotyped as bossy or aggressive. When working with marginalised women, it is particularly important that we use language that is inclusive and supportive so that we can build trust, safety, and respect.
How to discuss language in your women’s peer support group
In order to find a shared common language and explore which terms are acceptable to the group, you should discuss language early on in setting up your group and revisit the conversation when new members join. Many women with mental health difficulties dislike the use of medical terms which can be pathologising and out of place in a community setting. Others may find a medical framework validating and helpful. This is why it is important to discuss language with your members and adapt to their needs and preferences.
Generally speaking, the use of jargon should be avoided with an emphasis on keeping language person-centred, rather than adopting a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mindset which can disrupt relationship-building.
Many Women Side by Side projects set boundaries about which languages could be spoken in their groups. For example, Positively Talks decided that their session would be in English only as the peers came from diverse backgrounds and many different languages were spoken in the group, which meant that it was easy for people to be unintentionally excluded from conversations.
Another Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) -specific project encouraged women to speak their ‘mother tongue’ language when discussing mental health because many of them had limited English and could not express themselves as well as they could in their own language. See the toolkit section on Welsh language for more reflections on this topic.
It is important to be aware of how language and terminology can shape the ways in which women view themselves. This means exploring and identifying words that women in your group may be uncomfortable with. Examples could include (but are not limited to): migrant, mad, infected, single mum, victim, survivor, fat, complex, personality disorder, etc.
Language does change and evolve so each peer support group needs to assess – and reassess – language that is suitable for them. Terms that are appropriate in one group may not be for others. A fun way to explore this issue further is to play the game below.
The Language Game
All women who attend peer support groups need to be comfortable with the language that is used. The Alpha Mare women’s peer support group had a set of laminated cards that members made which were used to help identify words that people may find triggering.
Preparation/equipment required: Handcrafted cards with a mix of words that are specific to your group. Some must be loaded and others plain. The set which Alpha Mare’s group consisted of: ‘mad’, ‘crazy,’ ‘victim’, ‘bird’, ‘button’, ‘orange’ and ‘Sunday’
Space required: Small, indoors or outdoors
Group size: You will need a minimum of 5 people to do this exercise Total time: Depends on how many people take part. Roughly 5 minutes to brief and set up and 20 minutes to do and discuss.
Turn the cards over and distribute to the group, one card to one member, asking each member to keep their card facedown on their lap.
Invite one member to reveal the word she has to the group by holding up the card for everyone to see.
Now invite all members to say how they feel about the work they see.
Allow the discussion to run its course before repeating steps 1-3 with the next member until everyone has had a go.
Lyndsey explains: “sometimes the discussions were funny, sometimes they were sad, and often they were very revealing. For example, we learned that one woman in our group suffered from trypophobia (a fear of holes) which meant that she hated buttons. Another confessed a phobia of chickens which it turned out that three other members shared!
We also found out that the same words have different meanings to different people. For example, the word ‘bird’ made one woman think of beautiful songs that thrushes sang in her garden, while it reminded another of a time when she experienced misogyny at work.”
This game can also be done online, using the chat feature to distribute words to each member.