The power of words

In 2017,  I had the privilege to travel to Trieste Italy with a delegation of professionals involved in mental health services and policy in Los Angeles. I blogged about that trip here.

During the week we spent in Trieste, attending an international conference and touring their remarkable system of community care for their residents who experience mental illness, we were struck by the different words used by our new Italian friends to describe their work. Within a few weeks upon our return to Los Angeles, while our experience was still top-of-mind, we shared our impressions with a diverse group of Angelenos who gathered at the LA County Department of Mental Health headquarters on Vermont Avenue. That group report from December 11, 2017 is available via You Tube.

During that report, we presented a word cloud that captured the words we heard over and over in our conversations with the psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, peers and others who worked in their system.

Words that are frequently used by those who work and participate in the mental health system in Trieste

Language is powerful. Perhaps one clue to changing the mindset of how we see people with mental illness in America — their potential, their aspirations, their worth as human beings — is to change the words we use.

In Italy, we were told over and over again that users of their system were shown hospitality. That people deserve to wake up on the morning with a sense of purpose to their day. That the system should empower people to make decisions about their life. We learned about the importance of community and social networks in recovery.

What was also interesting was a discussion about the rights of citizenship. There was an entire panel focused upon the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a topic for a future blog. Citizenship in this context does not carry the same meaning (or baggage) as it does in our current American context.

That said, the word that jumped out at me most often was the Italian word for hospitality: accoglienza. (Aah-kohl-YEN-za) It doesn’t suggest the same connotation we attach to that word in American English. In the reception area for the Domio Community Mental Health Center we recently toured when I returned to Trieste in December 2018, this sign was taped to the door. What did “reception” look like in this center? It was hard to distinguish the difference between the users and the workers. People walked in off the street and were greeted warmly. They might hang out and talk a few minutes to the person at the desk and then wander off to see someone else in the center. There were no security guards. No imposing bag checks. No waiting room. No “us” and “them.” It was fluid space. Accoglienza space.

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest, in his book, Reaching Out, describes the journey from hostility to hospitality. In that book he says:

Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of a fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women and obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.

As I read more about his description, I came to the realization that this can be a guiding principle for how we think about hospitality in our community when accommodating those who suffer from mental illness. He challenges his readers to consider “a new dimension to our understanding of a healing relationship and the formation of a re-creative community in a world so visibly suffering from alienation and estrangement.”

As I read Nouwen, and considered the ways in which I saw accoglienza displayed in Trieste, I knew this would be the title of my blog. I will be the first to say that I do not do this well. But, I know it when I see it, and I want to get better at this, and I hope you will join me on this journey.

3 thoughts on “The power of words”

  1. As I am blessed to have toured the Trieste Community Mental Health system and meet a wealth of amazing a truly passionate people, I, too, agree the language spoken within the mental health field is unique as well as inspiring. Reading about Trieste and actually seeing the buildings and people have impacted me personally as well as in my career….for life. Working in the mental health system in America, I am saddened by how our folks afflicted with mental health challenges are viewed. Foraging to advocate within a system designed and based on funding and passing responsibility, I am thirsty for change. This in itself is frustrating as change is a slow process. Change is one of the reasons I chose my field of social work. People do often get better in the States utilizing our system but many chronic folks are simply in and out of inpatient psychiatric hospitals. How does Trieste manage those same folks without a locked facility. Based on the reading as well as the week spent learning and touring, I believe they do truly put the person in the center of care and fight to keep them there. Respect and hospitality. Kerry, it has been a pleasure to speak with you and even better to meet.

    1. Laura, it was a pleasure to meet you as well, and we are kindred souls now having seen first-hand this beautiful beacon of hope in Trieste. I agree — one has to be there and experience the remarkable culture that imbues all the staff that work in this system. They do put people first. Its not enough to just read about Trieste, or hear about it, or see a documentary. The care for people is palpable – and it gives me hope that we can find a way to release these loving-kindness values here in the US.

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