Mental Health Terms to Avoid – And What to Say Instead

Earlier this week, I wrote about the daily work involved in reducing the mental health stigma. There are things we can do every day to normalize mental health discourse, seeking help and talking to other people about our own mental health. One thing I mentioned specifically is to work on limiting the language that contributes to the disrespect and distrust of mental health issues. These words and terms make mental health issues out as something to be ashamed about, something to fear, instead of something to be open and honest about. Time to change our vocabularies!

What Should We Be Saying?

One thing I found in my research is that it’s not helpful if someone is told NOT to say a mental health word/term, but then isn’t given a suitable, more accurate term instead. So that’s what we’re going to do! I’ll be showing some common terms that I’ve heard/read, and providing replacements. Changing vocabulary is difficult, but it’s necessary if we want to build a space that means no one is alone in their struggles. On to the list:

DON’T: Say ‘Afflicted by mental illness’, ‘suffers from mental illness’ or ‘is a victim of mental illness’ – This is usually said with good intentions, but it also paints a bleak picture. I can still live a full, healthy life, and a mental health diagnosis shouldn’t be viewed as more negative than other health issues or disorders.

DO: Say ‘Living with a mental illness’ – There are millions of people who are living with their mental illness every day, and not every single day of our lives is sheer torture. In fact, living with a mental illness might even positive impact in other areas of life. Plus, this phrase is more accurate!

DON’T: ‘[Person name] is mentally ill’ – But isn’t this accurate? What are we supposed to call them if that’s what they are? Trust me, I’ve heard this plenty of times. And I’ll tell you what I’ve told those people. That person is a PERSON. Not a mental illness. No one IS their mental illness. Run that sentence back – how does it make sense? This is particularly troublesome because of how often people use this as a throwaway excuse for erratic behavior (if you need examples, let me know – I got plenty!)

DO: Make it person-first. And make sure you’re accurate! – If the person does not live with a known or diagnosed condition, labeling them as mentally ill is disrespectful and inaccurate. Find the word you want to use (since it’s said with a negative connotation, replace ‘mentally ill’ with selfish, arrogant, etc.) and start to incorporate it. The millions of us who live with mental illness will thank you.

DON’T: Say ‘committed suicide’ – One day, I’ll write a very long post about why this is one of the most harmful ways to discuss mental health, but for today, know that this phrase needs to go away. If you want to get into a philosophical discussion about death with me, that’s fine. Just know that there are more accurate ways to discuss this public health issue, and plenty of people agree on that.

DO: Say ‘died by suicide’ or ‘lost by suicide’ – “It’s against the law to commit suicide around here” is a quip from the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ but did you know that was true? In 2018, a man was convicted of attempted suicide. It was a felony in some states to die by suicide as late as the 1990s. That same legislative attitude was reflected around the globe. It’s clear most people did not know how to talk about suicide, and so whatever ‘norms’ were created by that aren’t actually accurate. Use a more accurate term (suggested above) and change that perception!

There’s Plenty More Where that Came From…

Now, there are a ton of other words/terms I could add to the list, but I wouldn’t be able to explain all of them. So I want to leave a list of some other words we can start to cut out of our vocabulary as we work to change the perception and shrink the stigma!

Some harmful words about the mental health community include: crazy, psycho nuts, disturbed, addict, junkie, deranged, brain-damaged, demented, saying you’re OCD or ADD. (note: even after all these years, I’m still guilty of using these words from time to time. Change doesn’t happen over night, which is why we need to work every day to change our language!)

What are other outdated mental health words or terms that you want to see go away? By sharing with each other, we can all work together to make this harmful language a thing of the past.

9 thoughts on “Mental Health Terms to Avoid – And What to Say Instead

  1. ashleyleia July 23, 2020 / 12:59 pm

    The thing with “committed suicide” is that a lot of people who have a mental illness use that term. It’s been on my radar for a while because I find it interesting, and it really is quite common. I get the issue around criminalization of suicide, but I would guess that for the majority of people, if they were to try to break down that two-word combination, they would describe it as committing to dying rather than committing a crime. And as long as a lot of people within the mental illness community are using that terminology, trying to achieve that language change in the general public is probably not all that likely to be effective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan @ MBNB July 23, 2020 / 4:05 pm

      I agree with you, it’s very common for people in the mental illness community to say use the term “committed suicide” because of how ingrained it’s become in discussing the topic. Unlearning language is difficult 😞

      Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan @ MBNB July 23, 2020 / 4:07 pm

      I know it’s a complicated topic to discuss, but I’ve relied on experts and other professionals as to what the most accurate terms are – the next step is to normalize them in the way I talk!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Simon August 9, 2020 / 12:22 pm

    I’ve recently started reading a lot about mental health. I heard about using person-first language and I’m now trying to make that change in my vocabulary. But, using the term ‘died by suicide’ instead of ‘committed suicide’ is new to me. I never thought about the fact that using committed could carry a negative connotation. Your article was very enlightening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan @ MBNB August 11, 2020 / 4:39 pm

      Thank you for sharing! I’m glad that this post had a positive impact. It’s hard to unlearn some language and change vocabulary, but I’m a big proponent of person-first language and think that it helps reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Glad you were able to find my blog!

      Liked by 1 person

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