Word Choice in Mental Health
One way to reduce stigma associated with mental health is to use person-first language. Person-first language acknowledges that a person’s diagnosis, mental health challenge, or disability is not as important as the person’s individuality and humanity, and does not define them.
With 1 in 6 of us experiencing high levels of distress or a common mental health problem every week, being thoughtful and respectful in our mental health-related word choice can make a big difference to ourselves and to the emotions of the people around us.
A simple change in our language—to focus on the person, not on their mental health challenge—can be very powerful. For instance:
- Say “A person who uses drugs” instead of “drug addict.”
- Say “A person who has bipolar disorder” instead of “bipolar person.”
- Say “A person without housing” instead of “homeless person.”
- Say “A person who died by suicide” instead of someone who “committed suicide.”
It’s also important to use words that accurately describe how we are feeling. When we don’t use appropriate language, we run the risk of making light of larger concerns or defining something incorrectly.
- Depression is not the same as having a bad day.
- OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is not the same as being organized.
- Anxiety Disorder is not the same as feeling stressed before an exam.
- PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) is not the same as feeling upset.
- Bipolar Disorder is not the same as being moody.
- Panic Disorder is not the same as feeling afraid.
- Schizophrenia is not a “split personality.” Using words like “psycho” to describe a person, or “schizo” to describe a person’s reaction or personality stigmatizes people living with Schizophrenia or experiencing psychosis.
However, when we recognize our words matter and the importance of word choice, the words we use can also make a positive difference in addressing mental health stigma.
The unfortunate reality is that some derogatory language has been accepted and normalized in today’s society, and that culture has become desensitized to words that can be hurtful to ourselves and to those around us. Words can be a barrier to help-seeking and a motivator for making mental health a continued stigma. However, when we recognize the importance of word choice, the words we use can also make a positive difference in breaking the mental health stigma.
Source: Mental Health First Aid & Mental Health Foundation UK