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Labels are Limiting

By Jenny Horsman

Labels are Limiting


Messages for Victims and Survivors of Crime Week – Part 3 of 7 in series

A Learning and Violence Stance is a place to stand with curiosity, connection and conscious awareness, before the colonial gaze of judgments, diagnoses, labels and standard stories shape and limit our view.


Mental health diagnoses may reveal some patterns and provide some possibility of moving away from criticism and judgment, but sometimes they also narrow our focus. When we look for the diagnosis of a mental disorder, it can divert attention away from recognizing how people’s patterns of behaviour were always brilliant, necessary strategies for surviving intolerable circumstances.


A diagnosis directs attention to the behaviours that fit a particular label. This can make it harder to notice an alternative picture that may also be visible in us, or in those we are working with, if we look closely. Diagnosis can provide access to useful services and supports.  It often leads to medication. Medications may be life savers, making it possible to function in the world as it is.  They may also cause harm, particularly when they become permanent solutions that shut down our real, reasonable responses to this unjust world.


A focus on diagnosis can lead educators and other allies to assume the problem is in the individual, and not the systems of institutions and organizations. A diagnosis can become an identity which puts a person outside the range of “normal.” Then that label can be used to justify leaving oppressive systems in place, or to insist that controlling or oppressive behaviour is not abusive: “You’re overreacting, you’re crazy.”


Miners used to carry canaries to give them early warning of methane gas before they could sense it themselves. “Survivors” of violence are “canaries in the mine”, revealing the ordinary world as toxic. Miners didn’t tell the birds to get back on their perch because they were overreacting, instead the miners fled to reach fresh air before they too were asphyxiated. But society responds to those who find everyday life unbearable as simply crazy or sick, not recognizing the wisdom that might lead to societal change.


Professionals not trained in “trauma” practices can get trapped in fear of doing something wrong, that only an “expert” knows how to handle people who are “mentally ill.” It can be remarkably challenging to see beyond disturbing patterns to the full, complex human being behind the diagnosis. When we think only of trauma and not of the violences that lead to traumatic responses, we may be drawn to focus more on the “disorder” of the individual and less on the damage birthed in social systems. I find Gabor Maté’s insistence that we are a traumatized species, not simply individuals, helpful to shift that balance.


Labels may blind us to changes that might be on the horizon, to the ways of living that we might be able to breathe into being, or find voice for, if we weren’t diverted and silenced by the language of disorder or disability.


What helps you to take labels lightly, to remember their basis in brilliant survival strategies, and reminds you that labels conceal as well as reveal aspects of each one of us?

About the Author

I am an educational researcher, a white first-generation settler in Canada, a migrant from England by way of Sierra Leone, where I spent nearly four years beginning to unlearn much I had been taught about the world in England. In Sierra Leone I absorbed new awareness of colonialism and white privilege, though I didn’t really understand the significance of those lessons until years later.

For more than thirty years I have been studying the impacts of all forms of violence on learning, and exploring how to support more effective and joyful learning of the things we choose to learn, at any age and in any setting. I first stumbled over the connection between violence we experience and how and what we learn during my doctoral research in the 80s, and later came to understand that what I heard resonated with some of my own childhood experiences.


I have learned a lot over the years, from research, experience, the wisdom of colleagues and students of different races, religions, cultures, and socioeconomic locations from my own, and a wide variety of training and study.

I prefer the language of a Learning and Violence Stance to the commonly used “trauma-informed”, in order to stress this point of view that recognizes the multifaceted nature of violence in society, and the correspondingly complex pressures when any one of us try to support learning, our own or others,’ within colonial institutions and an unjust society founded on violence.

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