For too many, stigma remains a significant barrier to those who might otherwise seek treatment for mental health issues. The words and terms still in use today that portray mental health conditions in a negative light only add to the stigma. As a result, people have learned to associate mental health conditions with commonly used derogatory terms, like “crazy, “looney, or “psycho.”
At a time when depression, anxiety, and mood disorders are on the rise, we as a society must begin to change the language we use when referring to mental health. Making slight changes in word choices can modify the tone of a comment. For example, “Susan suffers from depression” puts her mental health condition in a negative light, versus “Susan is experiencing the symptoms of depression.” Becoming more aware and compassionate about our word choices can go a long way in reducing mental health stigma.
About Mental Health Stigma
The stigma attached to mental health disorders has persisted for millennia. For centuries, societal norms have fostered a negative perception about mental illness. It could be due to a lack of research or understanding, or even long-standing myths about mental illness, that people would use the discriminatory language as a protective shield behind fear or lack of knowledge.
Even in modern times, people will ostracize or marginalize individuals with a mental health disorder, instead of expressing a desire to help them. These stigmatizing acts only cause the individual to feel shame or embarrassment, leading to isolating behaviors. The stigma therefore prevents them from seeking to improve their quality of life through treatment measures. Ultimately, mental health stigma increases the risk of negative and even fatal outcomes, such as despair, substance use disorders, and suicide.
The Importance of Language in Reducing Stigma
Even with increasing awareness, many people still use words that are demeaning and hurtful when commenting about mental health disorders, even when describing oneself. Often, using these terms or phrases are just old habits that have yet to be removed from the lexicon. The implication is that a certain unpleasant trait or mood state is equivalent to a mental health disorder only minimizes the seriousness of mental illness. Examples of this tendency includes:
- “I am so OCD!” when referring to being organized or tidy, implying a negative connotation for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Instead, why not just state, “I know I am super organized but it helps me reduce stress.”
- “She’s so neurotic, (or crazy or looney),” which are derogatory terms for people directed toward an individual who is diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Avoid these terms altogether, as they only perpetuate mental health stigma.
- “He’s so bipolar,” when describing someone who has been moody, which is not the same as experiencing the extreme mood shifts of bipolar disorder. Instead, just observe that “He seems to be pretty moody lately.”
- “She belongs in a looney bin,” a reference to mental institutions, and that the person should be admitted to one. Consider something more compassionate, such as “I am concerned about her. Maybe she should meet with a mental healthcare professional.”
- “I am depressed,” when feeling sad or blue, a far cry from the symptoms experienced by major depressive disorder. Instead, say, “I have sure been feeling sad lately.”
By making small changes in the way we describe our own or another person’s perceived mood state, we can help make significant progress toward reducing mental health stigma.
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