By: Dani Kessel
[Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I do not claim to be an expert. All my writing on mental health topics is based on my education, my personal experience, researching the topics, reading studies, and fact-checking. I strive to provide you with the best and most accurate information. No matter what, I always advise that you seek out a therapist or psychologist for professional help though.]
Mental health is a very serious issue that has long been disregarded. For centuries, anybody with symptoms of a mental illness would just be thrown in an asylum. Deinstitutionalization only started in the United States and UK in the 1960s. It’s just, in the past two decades, gaining traction all around the world. Even with these policies in place, obstacles like cost, insurance discrimination, lack of available/trained psychologist and psychiatrists prevent folks living with mental illness from getting help.
A major social obstacle that is deeply ingrained in cultures and language is stigma. Stigma is the pressure that says, “don’t talk about this,” or “this thing is bad.” It creates an “us vs. them” dichotomy that discourages and shames minorities (in this case, people with mental illnesses) from talking about their experiences or fulfilling their needs. It makes acknowledging or accepting mental illness difficult.
But, the reality is that, according to the World Health Organization, about 20% of all children and teenagers have some form of diagnosable mental illness/es. About the same percentage of civilians living in former combat zones develop mental illness/es. Additionally, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds around the world; this statistic only applies to deaths, and it doesn’t account for attempts or suicidal ideation. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death in the 15 to 29 age group. These are just a few statistics, but they show that mental illness is a prominent issue we need to address. A big step in that direction is acknowledging the relationship between language and stigma. It’s time we transition the words we use.
To help with that, here are 20 mental illness-coded words to avoid and better alternatives:
They’ve been sorted into 2 categories. The first 10 words are either diagnoses, shortened versions of diagnoses, or symptoms of mental illnesses used in place of more appropriate and precise words. The second 10 words are terms hurtful, harmful terms frequently used to target those with mental illnesses.
Here we go:
OCD ⟹ picky, orderly, neat, clean
Bipolar ⟹ oscillating, temperamental, capricious, finicky, unpredictable
Addicted ⟹ fanatical, enthusiastic, passionate
Manic ⟹ frenzied, busy, hectic, turbulent
Triggered* ⟹ upset, angered, frustrated
*Note: Triggers/being triggered refers to a sight, sound, scent, feeling, memory, or taste that causes someone anxiety, dissociation, or flashbacks (most frequently associated with PTSD). The blasé misuse of this term is a pet peeve of mine because trigger warnings and awareness are extremely important to the mental wellbeing of some people. Please do not use “triggered” to mean extremely angering. Those aren’t the same things.
Psycho (short for psychotic) ⟹ imbecile, dangerous, different, irrational
Delusional ⟹ Unrealistic, fantastical, unfounded, false, misguided
Anorexic ⟹ thin, skinny
Schizo (short for schizophrenic) ⟹ no good alternative; just don’t use it!
Phobic ⟹ scared, afraid, nervous, averse
. . .
Crazy ⟹ unbelievable, unreasonable, outlandish, bizarre, eccentric
Strange ⟹ atypical
Dumb* ⟹ uneducated, foolish, unaware, simple-minded
*Note: Not only is this used against people who have cognitive delays or learning disabilities, the term dumb is also ableistic as it’s an archaic label used for people who are nonverbal. It is not appropriate to use in either of these scenarios. Plus, just in general, it cuts people down.
Committed suicide ⟹ died by suicide, lost their life to suicide, died from mental illness
Victim ⟹ survivor
Retarded ⟹ no good alternative; just don’t use it!
Nuts ⟹ rowdy, excited, unmanageable, boisterous
Happy pills* ⟹ Antidepressants, medication, prescription
*Note: Many people with mental illnesses find this term infantilizing, as if they are incapable of handling mental illnesses and their own treatment needs like adults.
Spastic ⟹ erratic, clumsy, careless, overreactive
Freak ⟹ unique, divergent, aberrant
In the end, this boils down to think before you speak and choose your words carefully. I’m sure there will be accusations of this simply being PC culture, but that is not why I wrote this article. This really isn’t about being politically correct. The choice to use precise language instead of words that will stigmatize an already dismissed community is one that shows consideration and compassion. It indicates to people living with mental illness that you are a safe person to talk to about their experiences. It tells them you care. Language matters. And, If you have the ability to make another person’s life easier just by putting in a little effort, why wouldn’t you want to do that?
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, give it a like and consider sharing it.
It’s important that we discuss these relevant topics. Do you have any other mental health related topics you’d like covered? Comment your request below.
If you’re struggling, keep your head up and remember that you always have a safe space here at Girl On the Go!