Challenging mental health stigma and our choice of words

Challenging mental health stigma and our choice of words

These days there is generally more awareness around the impact of language and we have come a long way when you look back to previous times. However the issue still very much exists with 90% of people with mental health problems experiencing stigma. Words can be a barrier to people seeking help, or sharing their experiences with anyone in fact, it can put them in a bracket, make them feel less worthy or trivialise their condition.

There are some words which are outright discriminatory and are falling out of favour e.g. ‘nutter’, ‘loonie’ or ‘crazy’. However such words are sometimes still used in a casual way or thrown around without much thought. Some words may be less obvious but still cause harm e.g. referring to someone as psychotic or neurotic in certain contexts can be offensive. We need to be thoughtful of the words we choose as they can evolve over time and the meaning changes as a result, they can become too emotionally charged and cause distress to an individual.

1 in 4 of us will experience mental health problems in 1 year and others may be experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety at a particular time in their lives. Words can make all the difference. We should be careful to avoid inappropriate terms, even when referring to ourselves, such as:

1. Describing someone as OCD because they are clean and tidy, this is not the same as living with clinical Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, this can lead to the condition being misunderstood and trivialised

2. Describing someone who is low in weight as ‘anorexic’, this fails to recognise that Anorexia Nervosa is a mental health condition which is more than just weight loss

3. Saying someone has ‘committed’ suicide, this phrase is outdated and originates from years ago when suicide was considered a sin. Also avoid reference to ‘successfully’ or ‘unsuccessfully’ with regards to someone attempting to end their life, as this sounds like it was a positive or desired outcome

Bear in mind that individuals will have different feelings and preferences on how they perceive and choose to talk about their mental health condition. Some may find a diagnosis positive and helpful, where others reject being ‘labelled’. We may not be aware when we are talking that someone who is listening is experiencing mental health problems themselves and is trying to come to terms with it.  These moments can make all the difference for someone looking to speak up or seek help.

How to challenge stigma in a non-judgemental and effective way

If you notice someone using potentially hurtful or inappropriate words to describe a mental health condition, start by simply asking them to clarify what they mean before jumping in. You can then suggest that such words can be hurtful or unhelpful, but do not accuse the person themselves of any wrongdoing. It is important to refer to the conversation itself and the language that was used to prevent the individual becoming defensive and switching off from the discussion. You can refer to facts and information about mental health conditions to help improve knowledge and understanding. A conversation can then be had about more thoughtful words or phrases which can be used.

Nicola K Clarke
Mental Health Awareness Week 10th -16th May 2021