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Language and mental health

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Margherita from Vision Factory

Author: Margherita Baraldi

Date of Publication: 19/04/2023

Language significantly influences our lives and mental health is no exception. In a field full of stigma, choosing the correct words is pivotal. So, how do we speak? How do we use words when talking about mental illness?

But before getting started, please answer these questions sincerely:

1. How often do you hear ''that guy is completely crazy'' when someone does

something you don't like?

2. How often do you hear ''she/he's bipolar'' to describe people who change their

minds frequently?

Choose your words

Mental health stigma and language

In today's world, we are so used to hearing these expressions that we hardly pay attention to them. However, the way you talk and write about mental health is very important. Of course, some may say that words are just words. On the contrary, if not used carefully, they can help to fuel the stigma associated with mental disorders.

Indeed, a lot of people consider psychiatric disorders as manifestations of weakness. As well as seeking help from a specialist. Unfortunately, there is a widespread tendency among the general population to socially alienate people with mental disorders.

Thus, words have the power to become another barrier between ourselves and our mental health. Also, this scenario traps people in a vicious cycle in which they think they are suffering from ''something'' they should not be suffering from. Or, even worse, that this ''something'' somehow relegates them to being less worthy.

What can we do then?

The main concept is that the presence of a mental disorder represents only one aspect of

a person's life. Therefore, identifying someone as a ''patient'' or ''schizophrenic'' implies

reducing an entire human being to a diagnosis.

Here's a list of three basic rules everybody should respect.

Rule #1: the focus should always be on the person, not the condition.

Preferred: you are a person with schizophrenia.

Not preferred: you are schizophrenic.

Rule#2: be specific.

Mental illness is a systemic, diagnosable condition. There are several types of mental

illness and the exact diagnosis should be mentioned whenever possible.

Preferred: he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder

Not preferred: he was mentally ill

Rule #3: avoid derogatory language. Terms such as crazy, insane, and drug addict should not be used. Also, avoid words like ''suffering'' or ''victim'' when talking about people with mental health problems.

Preferred: you have/are affected by a mental illness. You have a substance use disorder.

Not preferred: you suffer from a mental illness. You are a substance abuser

In conclusion, let's all start using words that add value, unite and don't distort reality.

What to keep always in mind

➢ describing someone who is organized and orderly as ''obsessive-compulsive'' is

different from living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder;

➢ calling someone who manifests mood changes ''bipolar'' is different from living with

Bipolar Disorder;

➢ saying ''I'm depressed'' when feeling a little sad is different from living with

Bipolar Disorder;

➢ using words like ''psychotic'' to describe someone we don't like contributes to the stigma aimed at people with schizophrenia;

➢ talking about a thin person as ''anorexic'' downplays the fact that anorexia nervosa

is a much more complex disorder than mere weight loss


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