A linguist among the shrinks

I’ve wanted to write this post for some time, always thinking that it will be a bit too controversial, a bit too aggressive, a bit everything to be honest. But I think it’s time. A post about a linguist writing about psych stuff. I never thought it would be easy, but diagnosing me too?

In the last post I wrote about a sentence from a nurse’s record of a detained patient’s request for a conversation. I made a point about a closed communication channel between the patients (or is it inmates?) and the nursing staff. I tweeted and one of the reactions was this:

Most mental health workers are wonderful people who form healing relationships impossible to capture in any linguistic analysis of notes.

(I’m not giving a link to the tweet, as I’m interested in the type of reaction).

Now, I became interested in matters psychological/psychiatric about 10 years ago. I thought things would be difficult, so I have always been careful to say things that I have had evidence for. And as I am linguist, I have focused on texts and their linguistic form. And yet, ever since my first paper on psych things, I’ve been in trouble.

Personal attacks were the most irritating. Let’s start with the mild stuff. Obviously, I am simply ignorant and have no idea what I am talking about, after all I am only linguist. And the word ‘linguist’ was always said in such a way as if it was completely disqualifying. You know, it’s like in comparison the ‘the doctors’ or ‘the psychologists’, being a linguist is just inferior. Like, who do you think you’re talking to? But after a while I stopped noticing it, it was too small a beer.

It paled in the face of sending me to see a shrink, which opened the more substantial attacks. Though I never could decide whether psychiatric help trumped neurological help or was it the other way round? I was advised to get both. My favourite, however, has been ‘diagnosing’ me with frontal lobe disorder. But then I did say a psychologist, yes, can you imagine, a psychologist! was wrong and contradicted herself. However, the frontal lobe thing was behind my back – it was passed on to the person who had invited me to give the guest lecture. It was not the only diagnosis I got, though.

Truth be told, I always thought that such attacks, quite a lot of them made in public, said considerably more about those who said these things than about me. I would be lying, however, if I said that they didn’t hurt.

But personal attacks stopped when I started publishing and simply saying I was stupid was not really a viable option. And so started the attacks which undermined my research. My favourite was an accusation from an anonymous journal reviewer that I simply couldn’t have the data I analysed in the paper. Basically, the patients I interviewed could not have been so negative about their shrinks. I wrote to the editor protesting the slur, the editor understood, but he soooo couldn’t do anything. And then I was told so many times that one simply should not do research like I do. And questions I ask? Completely unacceptable!

And just to stress – all the examples above are actually true.

And here comes the comment I quoted above. Tipping point? Hardly. I’ve heard and read a zillion such comments. It is yet another example of what I said above. Can linguistic analysis tell us anything? Oh, it so can’t, after all, all these mental health workers are wonderful. They actually produced the data? Oh, who cares, haven’t we got a statement from a psychiatrist? A psychiatrist! This surely trumps a legion of linguists, doesn’t it? The data, please?? No, no, no – they simply don’t count! The psychiatrist has spoken – and that beats all the linguistic analyses in the world. Can I say anything that counts? Of course, you can – we’ll tell you what suits us.

But then, occasionally, every now and again, it’s different. There is debate. And it makes it all worthwhile. Thank you!

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