Talking about Mental Health

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The way we talk about mental health issues and addiction matters a great deal. It affects whether folks reach out for support and the kind of support they get. Studies show that stigma—having negative attitudes toward people because of certain traits—makes health outcomes worse.

That's why it's crucial as professionals working in this field to be mindful of our language. By using respectful and understanding words, we can chip away at stigma and make it easier for people to seek help.

Words chosen carelessly can be seeds for stigma. They can perpetuate prejudice and discrimination against a person, or group of people, based on their mental or physical condition.

Let’s deepen our awareness of the way we talk about mental health by exploring these tools:

Choose Person-First or Identity-First Language

People-first language means speaking in a way that primarily acknowledges the person, rather than the illness or disability. It separates the individual from the symptoms they experience and maintains their identity as people with strengths. Often this is the preferred way to address someone with a particular illness or disability.

Here are examples of person-first language, as well as language NOT to use:

Person-first phrases

Harmful phrases

A person living with a mental health condition

The mentally ill; psycho, crazy, lunatic

Died by suicide, survived a suicide attempt

Committed suicide, failed or unsuccessful suicide attempt

Drug and/or alcohol use or misuse

Drug and/or alcohol abuse

A person with substance use challenges or person in recovery

Addict; meth head, tweaker, burnout, druggie, junkie

My son diagnosed with bipolar disorder

My son is bipolar

My daughter with schizophrenia

My schizo daughter

My neighbor who has autism

The autistic boy down the street

The client I'm treating for depression

My depressed client

My father who has alcoholism

My alcoholic father

Source: National Federation of Families

An important exception to the rule of person-first language is identity-first language. Some people feel that their mental health challenges are central to their identity. People in recovery may include their mental health condition(s) when talking about themselves. Managing a mental health condition requires much time and effort.  It would make sense that some see their diagnosis and/or experience as an inseparable part of themselves, and want to acknowledge them.

When deciding between  “person-first” or “identity-first” language, it’s best to consider your audience and a person’s preference. Remember, language is always changing. If working with individual, ask them their preference. If speaking about a group, use person-first.

Use these resources to learn more about using person-first language:

Model Inclusive Conversations

People learn by watching those around them and often copy their behavior. This makes what we say in everyday conversations so important to reducing mental health stigma. As you go through your day, remember to:

  • Show off your people-first language! Others will learn from your example.
  • Think about your attitudes toward your own and others’ mental health. If you notice judgmental attitudes toward yourself or others, acknowledge them, apologize if appropriate, resolve to adjust your thinking, and move on.
  • Be open to talking about mental health when appropriate. Talking about mental health can reduce isolation and stigma.

Learn more about how to talk about mental health:

Challenge Stigma When You Hear It

Speaking up when you hear hurtful and stigmatizing words can make a tremendous difference to someone with a mental health condition. It shows real-life support and sends the message that it’s not okay to be biased. Consider these actions to challenge mental health stigma:

  • Contact media outlets if you hear or read a stigmatizing story about mental health. A quick phone call or note can raise their awareness. Ask them to do better next time!
  • Take time to reflect when you hear stigmatizing language. Step back and think about how you want to respond in the future.
  • Speak up about what you believe, when it’s safe and you’re comfortable doing so.

Use these resources to learn more about how to challenge stigma:

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