When It Comes to Mental Health, Words Really Can Hurt

Group Conversation

Increasingly, it seems like we’re entering an era where being “politically correct” is actually politically incorrect. Americans seem to be exhausted by the constant guidelines about what and what not to say. What some see as free speech, others see as bullying.

But let’s step out of that frame for a moment. What if the words we’re using actually do harm?

In the case of mental illness, we know that the use of certain terms can drive people into the shadows and away from services and supports that lead to recovery. Many of those words and phrases connote blame and shame — potentially causing the person and others to conclude that if the individual had, among other myths, a) been parented better, b) been more disciplined, or c) just tried harder, he or she would be fine.

Imagine that same logic applied to other illnesses — a person with cancer, for example. Do we apply the blame filter, or do we rally around the individual, being supportive and believing recovery is possible?

Other words are labels that wrongly define people as unstable, untrustworthy or even violent. Beyond the fact that people with mental illnesses are not violent and are actually more than four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population, as an individual experiencing mental illness, how likely are you to reveal your health issue and ask for support if you’re convinced society sees you as unbalanced or aggressive?

Extensive research shows that social acceptance is key to achieving recovery from mental illness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has defined recovery as a “process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.” In practice, this means that individuals with mental illness don’t have to live life confined to the home or hospital. Just like anyone with a chronic illness, people with mental health challenges have strengths and talents that allow them to be fully contributing members of society.

Individually, and collectively, we have the power to help create an environment where people feel supported and are willing to seek and receive help for mental health problems. Here are some recommendations for accurately, fairly and sensitively discussing mental illness. For a more comprehensive guide to language related to behavioral health issues, check out the Carter Center Journalism Resource Guide on Behavioral Health.

Use person-first language.

We are all complex, multilayered human beings who are defined by more than one characteristic or experience. Words should describe a person as having a condition, rather than as the condition. For example, “Tom experiences mental illness,” versus “Tom is mentally ill.” Going back to the earlier example, we wouldn’t consider describing someone as “cancerous” any more than we should be referring to individuals as “bipolar.”

Fight stereotypes.

Don’t play into the wrongheaded belief that mental health conditions explain unusual acts or behavior. Counter assumptions with facts and examples.

Avoid blame.

The word “stigma” often is used to describe what is actually an act of prejudice or discrimination. In fact, stigma refers to a visible mark, used to disgrace, shame, condemn or ostracize. Using the word stigma when referring to mental health problems essentially puts the blame on the person experiencing the illness, rather than on those who are perpetuating stereotypes.

Highlight recovery.

As with any other illness or disability, focus on strengths and accomplishments. By highlighting what people with mental illnesses CAN do, you are demonstrating to employers, educators, policymakers and those who might one day experience a mental health challenge that recovery is possible and that everyone has an opportunity to lead an inclusive, productive life in society.

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