Think for a moment about mental health. It is perhaps the only disease in which people who have it feel guilty for doing so, or, in some cases, are made to feel as if it is their fault. How can this be? Think about recent conversations you’ve heard.
Have you heard someone called “mental?” Perhaps you’ve said it yourself – “You’re insane to think….” And, it is not just everyday people and simple statements. For example, during a political rally, in which Rudy Giuliani was speaking to a group of people about the people investigating President Trump, he made a few key statements that can feel like a slap in the face for anyone struggling with mental health. He used words such as “wackadoodles” and then told attendees that someone he did not agree with “needs a psychiatrist.” He even made mention that such people needed to visit a local mental health hospital.
Does mental health language matter? Most certainly it does. Most people make statements like this from time to time without thinking about what they really mean. However, negative language like this has an important impact on not just the individual hearing it, but also on the way we think about mental health as a culture.
Simply, if we use comments like this, we degrade what a person is going through, and we simply make mental health less important. That is if the terminology we use creates a negative view of what mental health is, who is going to seek out treatment for it?
The Negativity We Inadvertently Assign to Illness
Imagine for a moment what would happen if the same negative tone was applied to any other disease. Would you ever think to say, “You need chemo – your brain cells are so damaged already…” Would you make a comment of shaming someone struggle with heart disease? Would you call someone “cancer-ic” or make fun a person who has a brain tumor that is causing an inability to speak or function. These conditions are devastating. Making fun of them simply isn’t accepted and would not happen.
Yet, with mental health, it does occur. In short, language matters. The specific terminology you use makes a difference.
Think About What You May Have Said
There are many examples of how people use a negative tone when discussing mental health. Yet, most don’t recognize what they are saying and how it impacts others. Consider a few examples.
- Do you use words like “psychotic” to describe someone who may have a strange idea?
- Perhaps you have used the word “unhinged” to describe someone suffering a panic attack or mania.
- Have you called someone crazy for having a different opinion than what you have?
All are inappropriate. But, they still happen. And, when a person who is living with a mental health condition hears them, what they really hear is that their condition is trivial, not as important, and not important.
How to Turn Around What You Say to Take This Into Consideration
Using person-centered language can make a drastic difference in the way people feel about the words you use. And, it can help an individual to see how much you value them, not their condition and not labels. Here are a few changes you can make today.
- Stop saying “suffering from mental illness.” A mental illness is not always a negative thing. Instead, say someone is “living with a mental illness.”
- Don’t say “mentally ill person.” Instead, say “a person with a mental illness.” People are not defined by their mental illness. There is much more to them than this.
- Don’t say someone is “disturbed” or “crazy.” Again, you would not say someone is “heart diseased.” A better option is to say “a person living with schizophrenia.”
- When discussing addiction, such as alcohol and drug addiction, don’t say someone is suffering from “substance abuse.” Instead, make a point to using “substance use disorder.”
These are just a few changes you can make to improve the way you are perceived when speaking about mental health.
Aren’t People Just Weak?
Did you know that about 1 in every 5 adults in the United States – which equates to about 43.8 million people – experiences mental illness in any given year? Did you know that 18.1 percent of U.S. adults have experienced an anxiety disorder including conditions such as Obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder? That is according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It’s only a very quick look at mental health.
Still, some people would think that those who want a change from negative mental health language into person-centric language are simply “too sensitive.” Others would say it is just to be politically correct. Others might feel that those who have mental health illness diagnosis are somehow getting let off the hook for their addiction for it.
Simply, what was the norm before is not acceptable now. From gender identity to sexual harassment, what was considered “okay” before or tucked under a rug decades ago, is now understood as being no longer acceptable. The same goes for mental health language.
When You Make the Change
When you decide to focus on person-centered language, you choose to help people with a variety of conditions to see that their health is just as important as anyone else’s. And, this can help to encourage these individuals to seek out the help they need – help that can better their life and improve their ability to contribute to the community.
Take a moment right now to consider your language. Are you really putting your best forward here or could you make a few changes that could help others improve their perspective? And, when you take the time to be careful about your words, you are putting compassion first. Would any of these changes truly be too hard to make when they could benefit others?
Mental health treatment programs are available to help individuals living with anxiety, depression, and a wide range of other conditions. If you or someone you know has not reached out to such a program, or you’ve put it off thinking you were “weak” or that you could simply handle it, now is the time to make a change. When you do, you help others living with the same conditions to see that there is help available. And, you help encourage your own wellbeing.