Mental Health: Why The Words We Use Do Matter

When it comes to mental health and mental illness, language can be a very tricky landscape to navigate. There are many words and terms which are ingrained into our everyday language, which we habitually use, that can reinforce negative stereotypes, without us even realising. We don’t go about our days intending to upset or offend anyone, it’s just that as language changes and evolves over time, it helps to be mindful of what we’re saying and of how some terms can offend, and why.

Mental Health: Why The Words We Use Do Matter

Why is it unhelpful to use these terms?

Living with mental illness is hard. Illness can have a massive impact on people’s lives. We often need a lot of help, support, and life alterations to manage it. Illness doesn’t only affect the person diagnosed, either, it also affects their friends and family. Words can trivialise, support negative stereotypes, and trigger.

“I cleaned the bathroom twice last week – I’m so OCD”

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is often used to describe someone who is very neat, tidy, or organised. We might even refer to ourselves as ‘OCD’ if we’ve had a bit of a cleaning spree.

OCD is about a lot more than just liking things to be clean. It’s a recognised mental health condition. It can stop those living with it from being able to carry out their lives in the way they might like to.

Rather than saying “I’m so OCD”, we could say things like “I’m on a roll with this cleaning malarkey at the moment”. Or “I’m loving my desk at the moment because it’s so organised that I can always find what I need”.

“Urgh, I’m going to kill myself”

Killing ourselves has become such a part of our daily language that we’ve even started using an acronym for it (kms). We often say it in response to something going a bit wrong. Or when we’ve found ourselves in a really embarrassing situation.

When we say it in this way, we almost certainly don’t mean it. However, someone could hear us who was up until 4am convincing themselves not to follow their overwhelming suicidal thoughts. Someone could hear it who’s sibling completed suicide the week before. The person we’re speaking to might have finally plucked up the courage to see a doctor about their low mood. With one person dying by suicide every two hours in the UK, it’s likely that someone within an ear shot will have been affected by suicide in one way or another.

Instead of saying “I’m going to kill myself”, we could say something like “urgh, this is really crap”. Or “I need to go and watch six hours of [insert sitcom here] to get over that”.

“They’re absolutely crazy/shizo/mad”

Words like ‘crazy’, ‘schizo’ and ‘mad’ come into our conversations all the time. We use them to describe people who are a bit eccentric or different. We often use them to describe a situation, or a hair style.

When we say this sort of thing, we very rarely link it with mental illness. We’re using it to describe someone or something that’s a little bit different. But using these words in such a negative way can be very harmful. Words like ‘schizo’ or ‘psycho’ are abbreviations for particular mental illnesses. These illnesses don’t mean that someone’s a bit ‘out there’. They mean that someone is living with a mental illness.

Instead, we could try saying things like “that party was full-on”, or “they’ve got a colourful personality”.

“The weather is so bipolar today”

We sometimes use the term ‘biploar’ to describe something that is changeable. A classic case is when we talk about the weather. If it keeps going from sunny one moment to raining the next we’ll often comment that it’s bipolar.

The weather can’t be bipolar because it’s impossible to diagnose the weather with a mental illness. Bipolar doesn’t mean ‘this changes from good to bad a lot’. It’s a diagnosable mental illness. Those living with it alternate between manic highs and paralysing lows.

Instead of using the word ‘bipolar’, we could say things like ‘changeable’ or ‘very up and down’.

“They were unsuccessful in committing suicide”

If someone has attempted suicide and survived, we often say that they’ve been ‘unsuccessful’. We also normally use the word ‘committed’ when talking about suicide.

Using the word ‘committed’ can make suicide sound like a crime. It stems from a time when suicide was a crime, but it isn’t any more. When we say someone has been ‘unsuccessful’ it almost implies that we wanted them to ‘succeed’.

Instead of using the word ‘committed’, we could say that someone has died by suicide or ended their own life.

“They didn’t eat lunch today – they’re so anorexic”

We often use the word ‘anorexic’ to describe someone who’s quite thin. We sometimes use it to talk about someone skipping lunch, or declining a bar of chocolate.

Anorexia isn’t just skipping the odd meal, or being a bit thin. The physical effects of anorexia (such as dramatic weightloss) are a side effect of a mental illness. Anorexia is a diagnosable mental health condition. It’s a lot more complex than just losing weight, and you can’t tell if someone has anorexia simply by looking at them.

Rather than using it in this way, we could refer to someone as ‘thin’. If someone doesn’t eat lunch one day or declines the odd bar of chocolate, we could make a joke about it or express our concern (depending on the circumstances) without using the term ‘anorexic’.

Mental Health: Why The Words We Use Do Matter

Describing someone ‘as’ their condition – eg. “They’re depressed” “They’re bipolar”

If we know that someone has a mental health condition we often refer to them ‘as’ their condition.

Mental illness can be part of a person, but everyone with a mental illness is so much more than their diagnosis. They’re a whole person outside of their illness.

Rather than referring to someone ‘as’ their illness, we can say that they ‘have’ or ‘are diagnosed with’ the illness.

“That was so traumatic”/”That’ll give me PTSD”

Sometimes, we go through a slightly scary or difficult experience such as a rubbish meeting at work, or a scary ride at a theme park. We might refer to them as a ‘trauma’.

PTSD is a real illness and traumas are events which can change people’s lives forever.

Instead of using the term ‘trauma’, we could say that it was scary. Or if referring to something like a meeting, we could say that it was a ‘particularly difficult’ meeting.

“They take ‘happy pills’”

Referring to antidepressants as ‘happy pills’ is, sadly, really common.

Antidepressants are medications which can improve the lives of those with depression, or other mental illnesses. It can help them to feel better, but taking these medications isn’t a quick fix to being happy.

We could refer to them by the name of the drug, by calling them ‘antidepressants’, or calling them ‘medication’.

“They’re battling/suffering with…”

Sometimes we say that those living with mental illness are ‘battling’ it or ‘suffering’ with it.

‘Battling’ can imply that there are winners and losers when it comes to living with mental illness. ‘Suffering’ can cause us to feel as though we are being pitied.

Rather than using these terms, we can say that people are ‘living with’ their illness.

Language can be really tricky and getting it right is hard. We might have used these terms without thinking due to the very way these terms are so ingrained into society, they might have rolled off our tongues without giving them any thought. We only know what we know. Having an awareness of what we’re saying can help us to become mindful of the terms we use and of the meaning behind them.

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