Call Me By My Name: Examining the Link Between Language and Mental Health

 cr. Reia Tariq

cr. Reia Tariq

I’m sure we all have a Starbucks story where they wrote your name completely wrong and you probably just laughed it off and took a snap of the hilarious mess-up. I mean, at least they got your drink order right (hopefully). But did you know that continually calling someone by the wrong name can actually be a negative determinant of that person's mental health? In fact, a new study published by the University of Texas at Austin seeks to highlight the importance of using the chosen names of transgender youth in reducing their risk of depression and suicide. Study author and department chair Stephen T. Russell noted in an interview with UT News that: “Many kids who are transgender have chosen a name that is different than the one they were given at birth. [Our study] showed that the more contexts where they were able to use their preferred name, the stronger their mental health was.”

The study examined youth who were able to use their chosen names in their day-to-day lives in four key areas — at home, at work, at school and with friends — and those who weren’t able to do so. The difference was staggering: those who were allowed to use their preferred names reported, on average, 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression, as well as a 65% decrease in suicidal attempts and a 34% decrease in reported thoughts of suicide, when compared to those who were not able to use their chosen names. “I’ve been doing research on LGBT youth for almost 20 years now, and even I was surprised by how clear the link was,” remarked Professor Russell.
It’s quite well known that words have immense power, so it’s not hard to believe that being referred to by the wrong name, or worse, a derogatory version of your name, can take its toll on a individual’s self esteem and general sense of well-being. Your name is part of who you are and so to be referred to as something or someone else opens the doors for self-criticism, negative self-identity and can lead to increases in both mental and physical stress for the given individual. Professor Russell notes “It's practical to support young people in using the name that they choose [...] it’s respectful and developmentally appropriate." So, let’s all be respectful and call people by the names they prefer, whatever that may be.