Mental Health Terms to Avoid – And What to Say Instead – My Brain’s Not Broken

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Earlier this week I wrote about the daily work to reduce mental health stigma. There are things we can do every day to normalize mental health discourse, seek help, and talk to other people about our own mental health. One thing I specifically mentioned is language limitation, which contributes to disregard and distrust of mental health problems. These words and terms make mental health problems something to be ashamed of, something to be afraid of, rather than something to be frank and honest about. Time to change our vocabulary!

What should we say

One thing I have found in my research is that it is not helpful if someone is instructed not to say a word / phrase for mental health, but instead is not given an appropriate, more specific term. So we’ll do that! I show and replace some common terms that I have heard / read. Changing vocabulary is difficult, but it is necessary if we want to create a space that means that nobody is alone in their struggles. Continue to list:

DO NOT: Say “Mental Illness”, “Mental Illness” or “Victim of Mental Illness”. – This is usually said with good intentions, but it also paints a bleak picture. I can still live a full, healthy life, and a mental health diagnosis should not be considered more negative than other health problems or disorders.

DO: Say “Living With A Mental Illness” – There are millions of people living with their mental illness every day, and not every single day of our lives is pure torture. Indeed, living with a mental illness can even have a positive impact on other areas of life. In addition, this sentence is more precise!

NOT:[Person name] is mentally ill “- But isn’t that right? What should we call them if they are like that? Trust me, I’ve heard that many times. And I’ll tell you what I told these people. That person is a PERSON. No mental illness. Nobody is their mental illness. Take this sentence back – how does it make sense? This is particularly problematic as people often use this as an excuse for unpredictable behavior (if you need examples, let me know – I’ve had enough!).

DO: Do it first. And make sure you are accurate! – If the person does not live with a known or diagnosed illness, it is disrespectful and imprecise to label them as mentally ill. Find the word you want to use (since it has a negative connotation, replace “mentally ill” with “selfish”, “arrogant” etc.) and start integrating it. The millions from us who live with mental illness will thank you.

NOT: Say “committed suicide” – One day I’m going to write a very long post about why this is one of the most harmful ways to discuss mental health, but for today you know that sentence must go away. If you want to have a philosophical discussion about death with me, that’s fine. Just know that there are more accurate ways to discuss this public health issue, and many people agree.

DO: Say “died by suicide” or “lost by suicide” – “It’s illegal to commit suicide here” is a joke from the movie “It’s a wonderful life,” but did you know that is true? In 2018, a man was convicted of attempting suicide. In some states it was a crime to die from suicide in the 1990s. The same legislative stance was reflected worldwide. It is clear that most people did not know how to talk about suicide, and therefore the “norms” they created are not really correct. Use a more precise term (suggested above) and change this perception!

There’s a lot more where that comes from …

Now there are a lot of other words / terms I could add to the list, but I couldn’t explain all of them. So I want to leave a list of some other words that we can cut out of our vocabulary as we work to change perception and lessen the stigma!

Some harmful words about the mental health community are: insane, mentally insane, disturbed, addicted, junkie, disturbed, brain damaged, demented and say that you are OCD or ADD. (Note: Even after all these years, I’m still guilty of using these words from time to time. Changes don’t take place overnight, so we have to work every day to change our language!)

What are other outdated mental health words or terms that should go away? By sharing, we can all work together to make this harmful language a thing of the past.

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