By Morgan Gald, NAMI-UW Marketing Director
They’re crazy. Are you insane? They’re schizophrenic. Stop being so bipolar! You seem depressed, you should get help. They committed suicide.
I’m sure we’ve all heard (or even said) these things at one point in time. Though it may seem like it’s no big deal, the language we use in talking about mental health and mental illness really matters! We all slip up sometimes, and maybe you’ve never been corrected on language and that’s okay! Hopefully, this post will help educate and spread the message to change the language we use when talking about mental illness.
Language about Mental Illness
Though it’s common in popular culture and media to refer to people as “crazy”, “insane”, or “psycho” these words carry a very negative connotation and perpetuate the stigma around mental illness. Instead, try to explain that a person suffers from a mental health condition rather than using an outdated, stigmatized term.
As with many other conditions, disorders, or disabilities, it is important to remember that a person is more than their diagnosis. For example, instead of referring to someone as a Schizophrenic, we can say they are a person living with Schizophrenia. By using this language, we acknowledge that there is so much more to a person than just a label of a disease or disorder.
Mental illnesses are not adjectives, they are conditions! Just because someone has a change in mood, they are not bipolar. If someone likes to organize their notes after class, they are not OCD. If someone lost their favorite pair of sunglasses, it isn’t depressing. When we use mental illnesses to describe common feelings or actions, we are devaluing the experience of those who actually have these conditions. It can be harmful for those living with these conditions to hear people use their diagnosis as an adjective.
In the example above, it says “you seem depressed, you should get help.” How would you feel if someone approached you saying this? If you want to have a conversation about mental health (or anything) with someone, it is important to use “I” language. Otherwise, you come off as accusing and the other person will likely become defensive and you won’t be able to have a productive conversation. Instead, you can state things you have noticed and your feelings. For example, if you’re friend or roommate is showing symptoms of depression, you could say “I’ve noticed you’ve spent a lot of time alone lately and have been missing a lot of classes. I’m wondering if you’re okay, I’m worried about you.” This way, you open up the lines of conversation and back up your concerns with observations!
Language dealing with Suicide
When talking about suicide, people often use the term “committed” or “successful” suicide attempts. The word committed makes this sound like a criminal offence. Additionally, the words successful or unsuccessful make it seem as though there is a goal to be reached. Instead, we can say “died by suicide,” “took their life,” or “fatal or non-fatal attempt.”
Another myth when talking about suicide is that mentioning the word will put the idea in someone’s head, this is not true. Because of this myth, however, people often avoid asking the difficult question of “are you thinking of killing yourself” and instead use a word like hurting. This can mean a lot of different things to people so in the case of suicide, it is better to be direct.
All of this may seem like a lot and we all make mistakes! Try to keep these things in mind to help end stigma and create a more welcoming environment for those with mental illness.
Want more information? Here is a link to an article related to this topic from the Huffington Post.