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The Power of Words to Remove Mental Health Stigma: What You Say Matters

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min read

When you were a kid, you might’ve said, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”

While we can appreciate the spirit of resilience from this old saying, we also must acknowledge that unfortunately, it’s not always true. Words mean something and they can hurt if used in the wrong way. In fact, words are extremely powerful — especially when talking about mental health. 

For many people, talking about mental health can be difficult or uncomfortable. Some people see mental health as a private subject that should be approached cautiously in public or with people they don't know very well. Others may simply not have the words to describe what is going on inside. 

It makes sense. Our psyche is a complicated thing — and navigating conversations around mental health (especially our own) is a delicate task that requires attention and sensitivity to each word.

In some ways, talking about mental health can even be like holding up a mirror to others. The way we discuss our conditions and treatment can impact the way people perceive their personal experiences, too. 

Strong mental health starts with open and honest communication, and subtle changes to the way you talk about it can go a long way. Keep reading to learn how making a few small changes to the words you use when talking about mental health can help remove negative stigma.

Understand the harmful effects of stigma 

Unfortunately, stigmas exist when it comes to mental health. The American Psychology Association defines stigma as “the negative social attitude attached to a characteristic of an individual that may be regarded as a mental, physical, or social deficiency. A stigma implies social disapproval and can lead unfairly to discrimination against and exclusion of the individual.”

Although we’ve made a lot of progress normalizing conversations around mental health, many people still approach the idea of mental health conditions or treatment with archaic stereotypes or prejudices in mind. 

When we talk about mental health, the language we use can further those stigmas if we aren't careful. And when harmful stigmas are perpetuated, they can also have serious consequences on those experiencing a mental health condition. In fact, a 2017 study found that internalized stigma can reduce the chance for recovery or seeking treatment at all. 

Set a tone that withholds judgment

1 in 5 U.S. adults is living with a mental health condition. 

And all too often, people living with mental health conditions are discriminated against, blamed for their condition, or not believed. This may lead people to delay or resist seeking care. This is understandable, especially if they fear the loss of their job, relationships, or livelihood. 

It’s important never to assume a person’s situation or feelings. Setting a tone that withholds judgment begins with creating psychological safety (“holding space”) for others. Psychological safety is defined as “being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”

Seeking mental health care is a brave choice, first and always. When supporting a friend or family member’s decision to start or return to therapy, the language you use can significantly impact their understanding of how their therapy process will go. One way to show compassion, sensitivity and support is to be mindful of the words you use.

Use people-first language 

People-first language emphasizes a person first, not their mental health condition. Using people-first language is the best practice in communicating with respect and dignity for others. You can learn more about using people-first language on the CDC’s website. 

Be aware of using offensive slang that perpetuates stigma. Even when used in jest, words like “crazy,” “psycho,” or “insane” to describe a person or a person's feelings can create a feeling of shame. When stigmas make people feel shame about their life experiences, they are less likely to get help.  

Here are some commonly misused phrases and the correct way to use them:

Instead of saying this... Say this:
Mental illness (or health issues, sickness) Mental health condition
Suffering / struggling with a mental illness Living with a mental health condition
He is bipolar He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Successful/unsuccessful suicide Died by suicide/attempted suicide
Committed suicide Died by suicide
Substance abuse or addiction Substance use disorder
Substance abuser or addict Substance user or person with a substance use disorder
She is abusing drugs She is a person with a substance use disorder
He is an alcoholic He is a person with alcohol use disorder
Normal behavior Usual/typical behavior
They were a victim of abuse They are a person who survived abuse

Remember: your words are powerful

Words can change our moods and feelings in an instant. The way we communicate with each other impacts our day-to-day lives in ways both big and small. 

When it comes to mental healthcare, language is particularly powerful. The way we talk about therapy can help remove the stigma of “mental illness” with others. At SonderMind, we believe that commitment to making mental healthcare more accessible, equitable, and stigma-free starts with how we talk about it. 

Last Updated:
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December 15, 2021
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Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (2020, August). Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Stigma. APA Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/stigma

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 16). Communicating With and About People with Disabilities. Disability and Health Promotion. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/materials/factsheets/fs-communicating-with-people.html

Nathalie Oexle M, Müller M, Kawohl W, Xu Z, Viering S, Wyss C, Vetter S, Rüsch N. (2018, March). Self-stigma as a barrier to recovery: a longitudinal study. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 268(2): 209-212. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28188369/

National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Mental Illness. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved November 22, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness

Kahn W. (2017, November 30). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. Academy of Management Journal.33(4). https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/256287

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