Mental Health: Why Language Matters

Updated: Jul 10

Words are powerful. With words alone, you can influence, empathise, hurt and help – writers use words to transport readers to another world, while therapists can use them to encourage someone to keep going. They have the power to both start and end friendships, create laughter and memories, or insult and argue. Someone once told me a twist on a common phrase that has stayed with me for a long time now – ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can eventually kill me’. How we use language is important, and arguably particularly so in how we use language when discussing mental health.

The reason why I’m writing this today is because of something a family member of mine said earlier this week. We were walking around town together when he told me to stay back because nearby was ‘a paranoid schizophrenic’ that he knew of. I immediately corrected him and made him aware that he shouldn’t say that, instead ‘a person with paranoid schizophrenia’. Secondly, I asked him not to act like people with schizophrenia are people to be avoided, and that I don’t care for his diagnosis as at the end of the day, he is a person just like you and I. Now, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be diagnosed and given the opportunity to both reach out and to receive help, because that’s something that I definitely would encourage – simply that I believed the way my family member dealt with the situation was both wrong in that he shouldn’t have said what he did and he shouldn’t have judged someone based on a diagnosis, as well as that he shouldn’t share his personal medical information so flippantly.

Language used in relation to mental health is important and we should always be aware and diligent about our choice of words. I’m sure some of you may have witnessed or even experienced yourself some of the negative terms used to describe mental illness, and it’s these words which can add to the negative thoughts and attitudes surrounding mental health and that can potentially stop someone from reaching out for help and support due to the stigma created by a poor choice of words. Suicide itself is such a painful subject for everyone involved, for the person who has gone through so much turmoil and despair to reach the decision to end their life, and also for their friends and family who are left behind – yet it’s our language use that can make it even harder to bear. Up until 1961, suicide was considered to be a crime, and those who attempted it were either fined or prosecuted. Yet even now within media, we still use the term ‘committed suicide’ when referring to a person taking their life. The word ‘committed’ creates the impression that suicide is still a crime, and that an individual has ‘committed’ an unlawful act. We need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, and how we use words is important in achieving this.

Another phrase that is often used, is the idea that men should ‘man up’ instead of being open about how they truly feel. I have written a post recently on this is in more detail so I’ll just briefly cover it now. Yet this one simple phrase can have such a huge impact on preventing a person from reaching out. I don’t believe there should be differences with how we look or behave between different sex and genders; I believe everyone should have the freedom to be open and truthful to each other about how they are and to be honest and say if they’re feeling down. If there are any men reading this post, I want you to know that not everyone believes that you should fit the stereotype of being physically, emotionally and mentally strong – and that if you want to reach out you can without fear of judgement you can either to me, your doctor or whoever you trust. I also know of some people who don’t reach out as they believe it to be ‘unattractive’ to feel this way, but again this is untrue. Being alive is better than ‘manning up’. Please, please reach out.

There are also phrases that people often mention between friends, such as ‘Look at my clean house, I’m so OCD’, or ‘This weather is bipolar’ which can be damaging and undermine those who are truly struggling to manage their illness. Are there any little changes that you could make in your life to reduce the negative attitudes towards mental health, simply by being more diligent of your language use? What are your experiences? I hope this has helped some of you to be more aware of the words you’re using to help people understand that mental illnesses are not something to be ashamed of. Feel free to send me a message through any of my social media or email, if you’d like to talk about anything. You can also comment below to discuss your thoughts and opinions on this topic and to discuss your experiences with other people.

Take care, Sophie x

As always, please bear in mind that I am not a mental health professional or any other type of professional, this is a hobby for me and is for informational purposes only and shouldn’t be seen as any kind of advice. I am not liable for any consequences as a result of this information and if readers rely on any of the information on my blog, it is at their own risk. I cannot confirm that all information is correct, accurate or reliable. The information is true to the best of my knowledge, yet there may be omissions, errors or mistakes. This information isn’t intended as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have, or believe to have, a mental illness, please contact a mental health professional.

Note: This picture belongs to Wix.

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