Talking about mental health matters, and the words we use can have a huge impact. In a study from Emory University, researchers found 50 psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid because they are shown to be shame-inducing and stigmatizing. But what exactly is stigmatizing about the language we use, and how can we respectfully discuss mental health? Below are five terms to avoid and what to say instead.
Don’t say “suffers from mental illness”
Using terminology that paints mental illness as always negative can be unhelpful for those experiencing it. Suffering implies hopelessness and a lack of quality of life. Instead, simply use living with a mental illness.
Instead, say “lives with mental illness”
With so many treatment and counseling options available, there are many reasons to stay hopeful.
Don’t say “committed suicide”
We should strive to avoid language that places blame on the person’s shoulders. “Commit” implies suicide is a personal choice instead of recognizing the person was not seeing reality clearly. We would never blame a person who dies from cancer or another illness; we would blame the illness. Victims of suicide should be treated no differently.
Instead, say “died by suicide”
We should use language that reflects the reality of what happened, like “died by suicide.”
Don’t say “multiple personality disorder”
This term is simply not accurate. The official term for what we think of as multiple personalities is dissociative identity disorder (DID).
Instead, say “dissociative identity disorder”
This is the proper diagnostic term and better describes a person’s experience living with this condition.
Don’t say “emotionally disturbed”
It may be easy to use this term when speaking about a person’s behavior. However, language like this can place a negative connotation on the situation and make the person seem like an “other.”
Instead, say “they live with a mental health condition”
When we speak about behavior, we should approach it with caution and compassion, being certain to put the person first. Using phrases like “they live with a mental health condition” or “they need emotional support” demonstrates respect for the person’s dignity.
Don’t say “schizophrenic,” “psychotic,” “disturbed,” or “crazy”
These words may seem like they describe behavior, but in reality, they elicit feelings of shame and fear. People deserve to be treated as people first and not as if they only amount to their mental illness.
Instead, say “person living with schizophrenia” or “a person experiencing psychosis”
By recognizing they’re a person before discussing their diagnoses, you respect their humanity and don’t define them by what conditions they may live with.
You may make mistakes. You may not always know what to say. But remember people are more than their conditions or situations, and our language can help restore the dignity that’s been taken away from them. Choose your words wisely.