Why language matters when talking about mental health

The words we use when speaking about mental health can have a huge impact

Written by spunout


The words we use when talking about mental health and addiction can have a wide ranging impact on those we speak to. From how someone feels about themselves and the decisions they make around seeking help, to the way they may treat others experiencing mental health difficulty, the language we use can contribute to negative misconceptions or help reduce them.

Why does language matter when talking about mental health?

At times, we may not realise that a term we use that references mental health can be stigmatising to others. This may be because we hear it used regularly and have not questioned what the word or phrase implies or how it makes others feel. We may hear people around us use certain terms or have grown up hearing a word used in a certain way and not question it. But how language is used can change quickly, and terms that were once acceptable can become dated or their meaning changes overtime.

Changing how we talk about mental health

Misusing a word can be easy to do, and it can take time to get used to using a different language than you did in the past. With practice, using new phrases will become easier and you will find yourself using them without thinking about it. Changing the language you use around mental health and addiction can be a big support to those around you, and can help change the culture around mental health, even if you don’t realise.

People with mental health difficulties sometimes choose to keep their experiences to themselves.  This can in part be because they don’t want others to know or are afraid that they might be judged by those around them. Using mental health language sensitively at all times shows baseline respect. It can help you show to others that there is nothing wrong or unusual about experiencing a mental health difficulty, and that you do not define anyone by what they have been through. How you speak about mental health might also influence the way your friends and family think and speak about the subject.

Using person centred mental health language

Using person centred language means recognising that a person’s mental health condition is only one aspect of their life and that it does not define who they are. For example, this means that you say someone ‘experiences addiction’, instead of saying that they are ‘an addict’. Referring to or labeling someone by an experience of addiction or mental illness can dehumanise a person and make it easier to stigmatise and stereotype them. If you use person centred language you can show to others that you do not judge someone due to their experience of mental health, but recognise that we all have different and complex aspects to our lives.

Examples of person centred language:

AVOID                             SAY INSTEAD

They are an alcoholic – They deal with an alcohol addiction/ They have a difficult relationship with alcohol

They are depressed – They have depression/ They experience depression

They are psychotic – They experience psychosis

Often we may hear people use mental health terms in casual conversations or use terms incorrectly. Common phrases such as saying “that’s mad”, “that’s mental”, “they’re psycho”, “that’s crazy” or “someone committed suicide” can be used without people realising how such phrases continue to stigmatise people’s experiences of mental illness. Similarly, people describing themselves as “OCD”, because they like to have things clean or as “bipolar” if they are emotional, can minimise the experiences of people living with these conditions. It can be hard at first to change the language you use, as you may not even realise that you say these phrases regularly. Learning phrases that you can replace old ones with, can help you change your own language moving forward.

Alternative phrases to use:

  • That’s mental – That’s unbelievable/ That’s shocking
  • That’s crazy – I can’t believe that/ that’s wild
  • That’s mad – That’s ridiculous
  • Someone committed suicide – Someone died by suicide/Someone took their own life

Read more about the language to use when talking about suicide.

Respecting experiences of mental health conditions

How people who live with mental illness choose to refer to their own experiences is completely up to them. People may often refer to themselves as an addict, or refer to their experience of ill mental health in a way that they feel comfortable with. It is not the place of someone who does not experience mental illness to teach or correct someone when speaking about their own experiences, but we can use sensitive, inclusive language when speaking about someone’s experience that is not our own.

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