Meaning beyond definitions: Student experiences with misused phrases, slurs, labels on campus

Meaning beyond definitions: Student experiences with misused phrases, slurs, labels on campus
鈥淚鈥檓 going to kill myself鈥
鈥淚鈥檓 going to kill myself鈥

Versions of the phrases 鈥淚鈥檓 going to kill myself鈥 and 鈥済o kill yourself鈥 are everywhere at Gunn: They might slip out after a difficult test or during playful bickering. The phrases, however, belittle the struggles of Gunn community members who are facing issues with their mental health, causing them further pain.

Junior Jennifer Li, president of the Reach Out, Care, Know Club, which focuses on mental health awareness, shared that although students might not be trying to offend others, using these phrases shows insensitivity 鈥 and the harm is real.

鈥淵ou genuinely don鈥檛 know the severity of what someone鈥檚 going through, and if you haven鈥檛 experienced it yourself, then you鈥檙e not going to know that it takes (a certain type of) sensitivity to understand these issues,鈥 she said. 鈥淚 just think people need to be more aware that there are actually people who do want to kill themselves at this school, and it鈥檚 not just funny.鈥

Li said these phrases cause those who are experiencing severe problems with mental health to think their struggles are normal, which discourages them from reaching out for help.

鈥淚n reality, not everyone is experiencing these mental- health problems, and it is important for you to get help,鈥 she said. 鈥(Just because) other people are depressed at this school doesn鈥檛 make (depression) normal.鈥

Beyond hallways and classrooms, the typed-up letters 鈥淜MS,鈥 short for 鈥渒ill myself,鈥 fill social media platforms. According to sophomore Dolly Wu, founder of mental-health nonprofit Solis Mental Health, posts like these portray suicidal thoughts as not only normal but appealing.

鈥淭rends of glorifying and romanticizing mental health (can be) really harmful because if teens are being constantly exposed to depression as a beautiful thing 鈥 for example, the aesthetics of crying or self-harming 鈥 then they will start making that part of their identity instead of trying to seek help,鈥 she said.

As these phrases are so common, students can find
it difficult to know when someone is actually struggling with severe mental health or simply exaggerating.

Wu shared that one friend, for example, says 鈥淚鈥檓 going to kill myself鈥 frequently. Because of how normalized the saying is, however, their struggle or cries for help can be easily disregarded.

鈥淎 lot of people around him just wave it off, but I think these are kind of the instances where we should really聽 try to reach out to them,鈥 Wu said. 鈥淭hese are specific examples where we have to draw the line between people just saying and joking about (suicidal thoughts) versus people having those thoughts actually.鈥


The R-slur
The R-slur

Gunn continues to see uses of the R-slur 鈥 a slur that targets individuals with intellectual disabilities 鈥 on campus, despite its derogatory nature. Though many students refrain from using the R-word itself, they may instead use other pejoratives aimed at students with learning differences: Some use 鈥淪pEd鈥 and 鈥渁utistic鈥 as synonyms for 鈥渟tupid.鈥

Sophomore Naomi Naveh has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. According to Naveh, using 鈥淪pEd鈥 as a synonym for 鈥渟tupid鈥 directly targets students in Special Education programs.

鈥淚t鈥檚 just explicitly using 鈥楽pecial Education鈥 as an insult,鈥 she said. 鈥淚鈥檇 never seen it used like that before (Gunn), and it was really jarring to me how it was used all the time and very casually.鈥

Naveh noted that even aside from explicit insults, misusing language relating to disabilities invalidates the experiences of students who have them.

鈥淲hen people say, 鈥極h, I鈥檓 so ADHD鈥 when they get a little bit distracted on one thing, or when people say, 鈥極h, I鈥檓 so OCD鈥 when they talk about how they like to keep things tidy, it both minimizes the effect of the disorder itself, and it also feels like (students) don鈥檛 know what (they鈥檙e) talking about,鈥 she said.

In anticipation of this invalidation, English teacher Danielle Whichard tries to prevent the use of offensive language in her classroom.

鈥淚鈥檓 very sensitive to and intentional about language that鈥檚 used with intellectual disabilities,鈥 she said. 鈥淓very once in a while there is a time that someone uses some language that crosses the boundary, and I would address that with them individually.鈥

Some students who use offensive language such as the R-word may simply be unaware that their words are hurtful. Naveh suggests giving students the benefit of the doubt 鈥 educating them rather than accusing them 鈥 to prevent them from becoming defensive.

鈥淚 think it鈥檚 probably best to go with the assumption that they鈥檙e just ignorant and not malicious,鈥 she said. 鈥淲hether or not that鈥檚 true, they鈥檙e less likely to get defensive.鈥

Whichard employs a similar strategy in her class.

鈥淥ne of my first tactics is usually just to sort of repeat back to them, not saying those words, but just asking (the students), 鈥業s that really what you intended to say? Was that the intention that you鈥檝e had?鈥欌 Whichard said. 鈥淎 lot of times, students were not thinking about it and realize that that was problematic or hurtful, and usually are apologetic.鈥

鈥淭hat鈥檚 so gay鈥
鈥淭hat鈥檚 so gay鈥

鈥淭hat鈥檚 so gay鈥 originated as a pejorative phrase in the late 1970s, with the word 鈥済ay鈥 implying stupidity or unpleasantness. According to junior Noah Murase, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, while students may attempt to divorce the phrase鈥檚 meaning from its origins, it still reinforces the harmful stereotypes against LGBTQ+ students.

鈥淭his word, specifically, has not evolved,鈥 he said. 鈥(When it is used,) we know that you want to associate 鈥榞ay鈥 with femininity.鈥

According to Gender-Sexuality Alliance President senior Chania Rene-Corail, expressions like these also stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community.

鈥淪aying the phrase, 鈥楾hat鈥檚 so gay,鈥 can make members of the (LGBTQ+) community feel ashamed of being queer, and it makes (Gunn) much more of a hostile environment,鈥 she said.

These words also make students who are discovering their identity feel ashamed of themselves and afraid to openly join the LGBTQ+ community.

鈥淲hen you are a young person trying to come out and you see that people around you aren鈥檛 that supportive of it, that makes you not want to come out of the closet,鈥 Rene-Corail said. 鈥淵ou just stay stuck in that situation where you can鈥檛 openly be who you are.鈥

Rene-Corail said this phenomenon affected her personally in middle school.

鈥淧eople at my old middle school used the word 鈥榞ay鈥 a lot, which made it hard for me to come out,鈥 she said.

Students who use these phrases also prevent the formation of meaningful relationships, alienating potential friends.

鈥淚鈥檝e had a lot of people in my life who were like, 鈥極h, that鈥檚 a red flag about (him),鈥 and I should be on alert,鈥 Murase said.

According to Murase, the phrase also reflects badly upon the user, making them seem childish for attempting to represent something 鈥済irly鈥 or silly as 鈥済ay.鈥

鈥淚f you want to say something is stupid, don鈥檛 relate it to sexuality,鈥 Murase said.

According to Rene-Corail, many students are simply ignorant of the phrase鈥檚 connotations. Thus, raising awareness is the first step in changing the conventional image of the LGBTQ+ community.

鈥淎 lot of the time, it鈥檚 used to not actively be mean, but as an ignorant statement,鈥 Rene-Corail said. 鈥淲hat I鈥檝e gotten from listening (to others鈥 experiences) is that it鈥檚 not about people being mean, it鈥檚 about not knowing of the negative effect on others and not knowing that it might make others feel embarrassed.鈥

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