top of page

Language Matters

“Lets all think more about the words we choose to use.”

We all know “language matters,” but sometimes habits take over. We’ve all grown up hearing phrases like, “that guy is nuts!” or “what are you crazy!” and many of us never really give it much thought. Our intention isn’t to hurt someone or to contribute to stigma. After all, it’s just a phrase, right?

But if you are one of the 42 million Americans that struggle with a mental health disorder, you might take exception to those phrases. What is even more troubling is if you are one of these 42 million Americans you might hesitate to reach out for help because you don’t want anyone to think you are “nuts” or “crazy” which are derogatory terms that have become synonymous with describing people battling an entire range of mental health issues. It is imperative that we resist the habits of our language and be mindful of our words and actions that may perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental health.

I am a mental health advocate because I lost my 16-year-old son T.J. to suicide. Although an out-going, athletic, intelligent boy who seemed to "have it all" my son battled depression and lost his struggle with the illness. I have to wonder if maybe T.J. would have reached out for help if not for the fear of being ostracized and made fun of for his mental health issue.

We need to change the vocabulary used when discussing mental health. Some habitual words that perpetuate stigma and work against people reaching out for help include psycho, insane, nuts. Maybe instead of using these words we can use words like, bizarre, odd, wild, or quirky. Rather than saying, “That drives me crazy,” we can say, “That annoys me.”

An important change that can be made when talking about mental health conditions is to stop labeling people as diseases. Instead of saying someone is bipolar, let’s instead say, “He has bipolar.” This is called people-first language, which Mental Health America describes as “speaking and writing in a way that acknowledges the person first, then the condition or disability.”

Some other examples of people-first language are:

Rather than, “He is disabled,” “He has a disability.”

Rather than, “He is an alcoholic.” “He has alcoholism or a substance use issue.”

Rather than “He is schizophrenic.” “He has schizophrenia.”

Language also matters when trying to help someone dealing with a mental health condition. It takes kindness, compassion and a willingness to listen instead of just giving advice and telling people how to solve their issues. Often people dealing with a mental health condition just want to be heard and not have their symptoms dismissed with comments like, “everyone has a bad day” or “it’s not that bad.”

Dr. Amador Xavier wrote an eye-opening book called, I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help. As a psychologist Dr. Xavier was frustrated because he was unable to help his brother who battled with schizophrenia. After years of failed treatments, Dr. Xavier realized much of the difficulty stemmed from how he and multiple clinicians were communicating with his brother. He found that shifting the conversation and using the LEAP method was a life changer for his brother and family. LEAP stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree and Partner.

In the area of suicide prevention and awareness there is a big push to change the language when discussing suicide. A subtle shift from using the phrase commit suicide, to died by suicide can have an impact on how those who die by suicide are perceived. Historically, suicide was a crime. People commit crimes. The word commit is defined as “to perpetrate or carry out (a mistake, crime or immoral act.)” Thankfully, suicide is no longer viewed as a crime so we need to move the language forward to reflect this change.

Changing the language will have an impact on how suicide and those who are deal with suicide loss are treated. The vast majority of people who die by suicide are battling a treatable mental health condition at the time of their death. People who die by suicide did not commit a crime; rather they succumbed to the ravages of indescribable pain that robbed them of their ability to see the other options available to them. We need to do all we can to make these options more accessible so they can be relied on in a time of crisis.

Mental health is not a joke. Change takes time and I believe we need to start breaking down our own personal biases and stigmatizing behavior to truly see positive change in society as a whole. We should always choose our words with kindness in mind.

bottom of page