Destroying Stigmatizing Language: How To Talk About Mental Health

Enter a classroom scene where students are shoving cell phone screens in each other’s faces, frantically whispering, “Check out this video! She’s so crazy” and shouting out, “How about that kid who had a breakdown in the middle of class? What a psycho.” These phrases are so commonly tossed around in social group settings that there’s one person in the scene that is often overlooked: the kid flashing back to three panic attacks he had this morning just at the thought of getting on the school bus that morning. She wonders if she would be ridiculed or labeled as “crazy” for an uncontrollable condition that makes it harder for her to function compared to everyone else. Another teen, that is labeled “weird” or “deranged” for his outbursts of twitching and whispering to himself, is made to feel ashamed of his schizophrenia by the casually cruel way that his peers talk about mental health.

The topic of mental illness is often avoided in everyday conversations and the media, but when we do talk about mental health, it tends to be in an offensive or negative light. For instance, people are quick to talk about how someone with a mental illness shouldn’t own a gun, but for some reason, people sweep conversations about depression and suicidal ideation under the rug. It’s astounding how our society can so easily degrade the significance of suicide prevention when out of every 1 in 5 American adults experiencing a mental health disorder in a given year, only 25% of these people feel that others are compassionate of their illness. By reducing something as serious as suicidal ideation to being “dramatic” or “selfish”, what kind of standard of human decency are we trying to set in our society and how can we change this narrative? The first step is changing the way we talk about mental health and debunking the stigmas that result from a history of using this problematic language to describe mental illness.

A stigma is created when a person is labeled based solely on their life experiences. Mental health stigmas are created when generalizations are made about people experiencing a mental health condition. It can be a category, a phrase, or even just a word that holds judgment and produces a negative image of a group of people. These labels are intended to treat people like the label itself and not as an individual human with rights and feelings. When one person is deemed “different” from everyone else, these people are left to feel separate and isolated from everyone else that define themselves as “normal”. Stigmas can appear as a negative word directed toward a specific person, but they also manifest in one’s own private thoughts. For instance, even if these thoughts aren’t voiced aloud, predispositions, like a person with a mental illness being dangerous or not being able to accomplish a job, only work to further stigmas.

The consequence of these stigmas is the assignment of shame to the people living with a mental illness that not only isolates them from everyone else but discourages them from finding treatment out of fear of being further humiliated or feeling like their lives are worthless. Also due to these stigmas, a person with a mental illness has a better chance of being questioned or dealing with law enforcement than being seen for medical treatment while going through a crisis. This lack of compassion for those experiencing a mental illness extends to prisons where there are more people with mental illnesses in prisons than there are in psychiatric hospitals. It’s also apparent in the high rate of homelessness and media portrayal of people with a mental illness as someone who is violent or bound to cause a national tragedy. Even politicians who call each other names that are commonly used to degrade people with a mental illness are advancing these stigmas.  

However, the question that still remains is how do we combat these stigmas in order to create a more accepting and uplifting rather than demeaning environment for those living with a mental illness? Education. When you hear someone saying something offensive in regards to mental health, correct them. Educate yourself and educate others. Here’s a guide of words and phrases to avoid when speaking about mental health and some alternative terms that are acceptable according to the mental health community:

Words to Avoid

Mad
Psycho
Lunatic
Wacko
Deranged
Mentally Ill
Insane
Crazy

 

Preferred Language

“A person with a mental health challenge”
“A person with a mental health experience”
“A person with a mental health diagnosis”
“A person with a mental health/psychiatric disability”

 

Instead of… …say this
“Committed suicide” “Died by suicide”
“Normal” “Neurotypical”
“Psychotic” “Experiences symptoms of psychosis”
“Is autistic” “Has autism”
“Addict/junkie” “Experiencing an alcohol/drug problem”
“Suffering from or a victim of” “Experiencing, being treated for, has diagnosis of”
“Bipolar person” “Has a bipolar disorder”

Source

What it boils down to is that people have a right to self-identify how they see fit and that extends beyond just the mental health community. Often, we as a society feel we are owed some sort of explanation or a sense of understanding when it comes to how people choose to live and identify. The truth is: we aren’t owed anything. It’s the people who are experiencing the discrimination and the isolation and the stigmatization that deserve fair treatment and support. Even after reading this article, you still might not see the significance in the difference between “mentally ill person” and “person experiencing a mental illness”, but the people who are actually living through these conditions see the difference. You don’t have to understand, but you do need to be conscious of the words that are coming out of your mouth because they could be the difference between whether or not someone believes their life is valuable.

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