Putting People First: A Healthier Dialogue for Mental Health
Advocacy The language we use to talk about mental illness can be stigmatizing. Here are a handful of helpful reminders to recast the conversation in a healthier light.
Mental illness is very often misunderstood. One reason for this is the language used to describe mental illness and addiction and those who live with them.
Inside the stigma
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 25 percent of people with mental health symptoms believe that people are caring and sympathetic toward someone living with a mental illness.
"Only 25 percent of people with mental health symptoms believe that people are caring and sympathetic toward someone living with a mental illness."
Even if mental illness does not affect you directly, it likely affects someone you know or care about. One in two of us will have a mental health issue during our lifetime. Despite the fact that so many people have a mental illness, terms like “crazy” and “psycho” are commonly used to insensitively describe those living with a mental health condition.
These terms reinforce the stigma and negative attitudes associated with mental illnesses. We must start using person-centric language when talking about mental illness.
Flip the script
You would never tell someone with cancer to “just get over it,” or someone with a broken leg to “stop looking for attention.” This should not be the language we use when talking to a person living with a mental illness.
People should not be referred to as “schizophrenics”, “alcoholics”, or “anorexics”. People have disorders; they do not become a disorder. Instead, use such phrases as “people with schizophrenia” or “individuals who have anorexia.” Be sensitive to the use of words that connote negativity, such as “problem,” to describe a medical condition.
Here are some other tips:
- Do not describe an individual as “mentally ill”
- Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with,” “suffers from” or “victim of”
- Do not use derogatory terms like “insane,” “crazy,” “crazed,” “nuts” or “deranged”
Many do not realize saying “committed suicide” is inherently judgmental, as it sounds like a person committed a crime. Next time you hear someone talk about a person who committed suicide, let them know that “died by suicide” is a better phrase to use. Speak out and help reduce stigmatizing language.
See the difference
Living with a mental illness can be challenging on its own, and the unnecessary and demeaning stigma only makes it worse. Take the time to consider the language you use.
Talking about mental illness in a respectful way can make a big difference in people’s lives. Harmfully labeling someone with a mental illness only hurts those in need of support. Nobody wants to be labeled, or known, for their illness; they want to be known for their talents or their unique qualities as a person.
It’s time to stamp out stigma and realize that mental health is just as important as physical health. Start using person-centric language to talk about mental illness.