Mental health can be a difficult issue to approach, especially when it involves someone close to you. It’s only natural to want to support your loved ones the best you can, yet the language surrounding mental health can often feel like a barrier. Will someone be offended if you say they have a “problem?”, is it okay to make jokes about it? Should you even bring it up at all?
Words can be very powerful things, and choosing the right kind of language can do more than merely avoid offence. In fact, the use of ‘loaded language’ can have a real influence on recovery. The word ‘normal’ to describe those without mental health concerns is just one such example, but there are many more that we use without realising their implications.
One of the most common mistakes people make is to define people by a condition. “They’re a schizophrenic” may sound like an accurate way to describe someone, but it’s a phrase that strips away all their other qualities and achievements. Using the phrase “they’re a person who has schizophrenia” doesn’t ignore the condition but neither does it make it an all-consuming identity, instead showing that it is simply one of many characteristics a person possesses – like the ability to draw, a love of animals, or an outgoing personality.
Using words out of context
Many of us are guilty of using mental health language to incorrectly describe ourselves or others. You may have called someone you don’t like a ‘psycho’ or apologised for being a ‘bit OCD’ while cleaning the dishes. While these are often lighthearted throwaway comments, they lead to a real problem whereby those with genuine concerns are delegitimised and may be unable to get the help they need.
Using this kind of language as part of everyday vocabulary also acts to spread misinformation about mental health, giving people preconceptions that may not be true. Having a ‘manic’ day in the office is in no way like suffering from a manic episode, and yet people say it without even realising the impact it has. It may seem overly sensitive to some, but every use of a word is a reminder that mental health is not taken as seriously as it should. Besides, would saying you had a ‘really busy’ day hurt that much?
Every year it’s thought that 3.3 out of every 100 people in England suffer from depression, experiencing feelings of severe despondency and dejection that turn everyday life into an empty experience. It is important to remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and you can help others on their journey through showing understanding and empathy. Just remember that cliched phrase “just cheer up” is not only unhelpful but can actually make people feel worse – bringing a sense of guilt for not enjoying the moment.
Depression is often a lonely place, and while you might feel as though you have to tread on eggshells, the reality is that the words “I care” are often the most meaningful. As long as you show that you’re there and willing to listen, the language you use doesn’t really matter. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.
Talking about suicide
Suicide is one of the most sensitive subjects out there, and it’s important to not respond to any mention of it in a light that glamorises it. Phrases such as “unsuccessful” or “failed suicide” inadvertently make it seem as though it is a task yet to be completed – a dangerous reinforcement in a time of genuine need. Alternate wording should be matter of fact and neutral; “a non-fatal attempt at suicide” or “an attempt to end his/her own life” is how any reference should be made.
If you are concerned about someone considering suicide, the NHS have a great list of resources that can be found here.
Referring to mental illness
Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right word, leading us to grasp whatever description seems appropriate. This is the thinking behind labelling those with a mental health issue ‘a sufferer’ or ‘a victim’ of the condition. The reality is that using such phrases can make somebody feel helpless, perpetuating the cycle of negative thoughts that can afflict them. Instead, you can use a variety of phrases to acknowledge a condition without showing any inadvertent judgement. “They are experiencing”, “they are being treated for” and “they have a history of” mental illness is a far more appropriate way of referring to people.
The term ‘mental health problem’ is acceptable to use, as this acknowledges the negative impact conditions can have on people’s lives. However, the term ‘illness’ is best avoided. Many people experience mental distress and while this may be a problem for them, it does not necessarily mean they are ill.
Remember that everyone is unique
What’s offensive to one person might be a funny joke to another, it all depends on how well you know them. Ultimately, everyone will have their own opinions, personalities and perspective on the world. The suggestions are a good rule of thumb to follow, but are by no means set in stone and will vary depending on your relationship and familiarity with the person involved.
There are occasions where we simply don’t know what to do, where no words seem to make a difference. That’s okay, as mentioned, company means the most, you’re not a therapist – you’re a friend. There may be occasions however, where a therapist may be of benefit. Suggesting one directly may come across as insensitive, and trigger a dismissive response; instead you should listen and gently point the way. “My friend had a similar problem and found X really useful, I’ll send you a link” is one hypothetical way of doing so.
Language for promoting acceptance
At the end of the day, nobody should be turning a blind eye to mental illness. Nor should the topic have to make people uncomfortable. If there’s one takeaway from this post it’s that language is a tool for promoting acceptance, not drawing lines that separate us from one another – remember a problem is only a problem if you think it is.
If someone you know is struggling with a mental health concern, feel free to get in touch with Psytherapy for confidential advice on what steps you can take to support them. Alternatively, if you have any additional advice please add them in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you.