Words Win Wars

This week is Mental health awareness week and the social media world has been a cathartic outlet for millions of people. Individuals have been desperate to impart experiences and feelings often denied to them in a health industry still criminally underfunded. People have been communicating in the only way that’s comfortable and accessible. Mental health has touched every corner of humanity, exacerbated by the pandemic. For me, mental health has been a lifelong companion, one that harsh and brutal communication enabled to fester.

I was 10 years old in 1982, a little overweight but happy. This decade was a time before an emphasis on bringing emotion into medical relationships and it showed in practice. I was taken to our local tweed-wearing GP, a man systemic of the times, cold and practical. Upon seeing me he turned away and uttered a guttural noise of disgust at my physical appearance and proceeded to lecture me in icy tones about how disgusting I was for being overweight. His words, attitude, and expressions were cold and for a child, inappropriate. This often-repeated memory laid the groundwork for a lifetime of body dysmorphia, anxiety, and depression.

Mental health is a hidden disability, that is irrefutable logic. When episodes are at their peak you cannot function in a physical or mental state correctly and I challenge anyone to dispute it. For me, it affects my ability to write and care for my disabled child. It affects the way I dress, eat, interact and stress. That gross elucidation from my past has set me on a lifetime of self-starvation, self-hatred, and thoughts of self-harm. This lifetime of exhaustive mental terror could have been avoided if communication from a specialist was less cruel, judgemental, and more empathetic. Words if used as weapons, cost lives.

Communication is how I live. I communicate through my writing work, as a comms manager, speaker, and carer to my daughter. I am a half-word smith and half self-trained health care specialist. Communication to a child in the correct way will determine how that child or indeed vulnerable adult will grow and I have learned that words can be as sharp as knives, or as gentle and encouraging as sunshine through stained glass windows. Experience as a parent (and as someone with deep mental health issues that are triggered through sometimes cruel and callous comments) has taught me to communicate with empathy and kindness.

I am no paid healthcare specialist and I have to wade through the fog and tears of my depressive days to make sure my daughter is safe, well, confident, and communicated to with love and encouragement. That is effective verbal and physical communication. I sometimes feel that I could be a better parent if I had not been scarred by one man’s appalling idea of professional verbalism.

The current healthcare system is a vastly improved shadow of its former self. I often have to take my daughter to the hospital for checkups. The attitudes of the majority of staff are ones I would have died for. There is a skill set apparently required for healthcare professionals that is a combination of scientific knowledge, technical aptitude, and qualities such as compassion and empathy. I now see it in droves. I see the way the staff communicate their knowledge of healthcare procedures to my daughter in a mix of non-jargonistic phrases topped off with smiles and patience, how my 10-year-old self weeps.

Effective communication can: Enhance the patient experience; Reduce complaints; Increase nurses’ self-confidence, professional standing, career prospects, job satisfaction, and reduce stress. It’s a two-way street that builds relationships that put people at ease mentally and physically (the keyword there is mentally) Words and actions can scar and the mind of someone with depression returns to those wounding moments to be tormented constantly. I know this and so does half the country.

Not everyone within the health care system retains the gifts of empathic communication. Stress and inexperience when dealing with disabled, elderly people or indeed depressive patients can see healthcare professionals break. This is a communication breakdown that is difficult to bridge.

For me, the current healthcare system has been nothing short of verbally and physically miraculous. My daughter’s treatment a billion miles removed from the dark days of the 1980s. There needs to be a better investment in the most basic of human traits, there must be better healthcare communication from the top of the supply chain to the humans who battle away in these unprecedented and stressful times. Communication and public relations are easily manageable and fixable with the right tools.

Words cost lives but words can win wars. My mental health is much the same as anyone else’s, manageable with medication, sleep, and love. I live communication, we all live communication. Good healthcare communication skills are essential to allow others and yourself to understand information more accurately and quickly. In contrast, poor communication skills lead to frequent misunderstanding, frustration, deep wounds, loss of trust, and a lifetime of confusion and pain. I know all this; I just wish I had a time machine.