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The Power of Words

By Nicole Koester

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”

Well, Mr. Alexander William Kinglake, I disagree. Maybe that was true back in 1830 when you authored the catchy phrase, but fast forward to 2019 and names do hurt. A lot.

Robert Fulghum (“All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”) corrected it: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”

Words certainly broke my sister’s heart, and I dare say played a part in her unexpected death.

Let me explain.

My older sister Angie was in her teens when doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic depression. For years, my parents struggled to find the right combination of counseling, medicine, and lifestyle changes to help her navigate her mental illness. She eventually learned to manage her disability and live what many would consider a full life. She attended college, married, and had two beautiful daughters. As a close sibling, I know Angie had a loving support system that frequently buoyed her. However, the cocoon of her family and friends was not enough to protect her from society’s ignorant and judgmental voices that stigmatize mental illness. The words ate my sister alive.

Scholarly research and substantial surveys explore the negative attitudes and stereotypes people still have toward those with mental illness. Clinical psychologist Michael Friedman stressed this argument in a Psychology Today article, “The Stigma of Mental Illness is Making us Sicker: Why mental illness should be a public priority.” Friedman writes that people often distance themselves from those with mental illness, who in turn may feel increasingly isolated and lonely. He references the strong link between social isolation and the deterioration of health, using Judith Shulevitz’s phrase, “the lethality of loneliness.” The lonely get sicker than the non-lonely, because they don’t have people to take care of them; they don’t have social support, Shulevitz wrote in The New Republic.

For more than three decades, my sister was labeled “crazy,” “nuts” and “insane.” Some people simply called her “bipolar,” but she was not bipolar. She had bipolar disorder. She was a mother, sister, daughter, employee and a friend. She didn’t define herself by her disability, but far too many people did.

Over time she developed what psychologists term “self-stigma”– diminished self-esteem. I am not a psychologist or doctor, but I watched as she absorbed the negative words. Fallacies about her self-worth gnawed at her. She felt that the conversation surrounding her disability and the words used to describe her were misguided and uninformed, and they minimized her as an individual.

Her body and maybe her mind eventually seemed to give up. She was found dead three years ago this month. Experts ruled out suicide, homicide and physical illness. Her death certificate reads “undetermined.”

Bipolar disorder did not kill my sister. But our family feels strongly the stigma surrounding her illness caused strain that her body could not bear.

My work at the National Center on Disability and Journalism is to honor my sister. The NCDJ’s mission is to offer education and guidance to journalists who write about people with disabilities or disability issues. Journalists understand the power of words.

So, for all the Angie’s out there, let’s make the words and phrases we use about disabilities both as accurate and as non-stigmatizing as possible. A person should not be defined by any one thing about them that does not come from their own choice ¬– because sticks and stones can break their hearts.