build better conversations

How shifting language helps build better conversations around mental health

I’ve seen the conversation about mental health shift in my lifetime. I even think about my experience seeing mental health practitioners – I’ve gone from doing so as part of a solo journey to commonly trading stories about key lessons and breakthroughs with friends. This progress is beautiful. It’s a topic that I can see a marked reduction in stigma in my (still incomplete) lifetime. That said, there is still significant progress we need to make to ensure that we continue to address mental health stigma.

progress, yet still problematic

I hope many people would agree that derogatory terms like psycho, schizo and crazy aren’t appropriate in our conversations. Others would quickly agree that describing people as psychotic or neurotic is also outdated. This progress is good – but it means that we’re being asked to acknowledge and change more nuanced, harmful language. This can be a more lofty task because these turns of phrase and words can easily fall under the radar. 

Two young women-identifying friends strolling outdoors in the city with smart phone

person-first or identity-first?

As an agency, we often promote people-first language. We think it’s important to recognize people first, and then their experiences and identities. True people-first language also asks us to consider whether a label is necessary. That said, adopting people-first language isn’t always the right option. Some people feel their mental health experience is critical to their self-identity. 

If you’re speaking with – or more critically for – people, engage that community first to understand how members describe themselves. Are they using people-first language? Or are they using identity-first language? Follow their lead.

dos and don’ts

This list is not comprehensive. We could write anthologies when promoting anti-stigma, trauma-informed language about mental health. Below, we’ve shared some short, guiding principles to lead meaningful conversations. 

  1. Do focus on the person. Whether you’re using people-first or identify-first language, remember that you’re talking about a person. Lead with empathy and seek connection.
  2. Don’t describe someone who is organized as having ‘OCD.’ Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a clinical and complex condition. There is no need to conflate or minimize it in regular discourse.  
  3. Do say ‘living with,’ ‘experiencing,’ or ‘has’ a mental illness, and not ‘suffering from.’ Saying things like, ‘he suffers from ADHD’ (or other disorders) is unfortunately common. We want to both acknowledge that enduring some mental health issues can be, of course, challenging. That said, we can be more kind with our language than implying mental illness equates to a life of suffering. 
  4. Don’t say ‘committed’ suicide. This language stems from a time when suicide was considered a crime. People commit crimes, not suicide. Further, don’t use language like ‘successfully’ or ‘unsuccessfully’ committed suicide – the implications are that taking your own life would be ‘successful,’ and that’s not appropriate.
  5. Do use ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim.’ Although not unique to mental health language, root people’s experience in empowered language, not victimhood.

more than one approach

I think it’s important to note that mental health practitioners aren’t necessarily aligned across all language considerations. Some folks reject labels and diagnoses altogether, while others feel they are helpful to allow people to access support services. Another term people appear to hold conflicting views on is ‘recovery’ because it doesn’t have a consistent meaning.

This serves as a good reminder that language is continually evolving. People explore standard terms, reflect on whether they are genuinely serving an impacted community, and make changes. We can – and should – continue to do this, too. 

Follow our ongoing Building Better Conversations series to read more on equitable language considerations. Also, this is meant to be a thought-starter and we’re always open to learning more. What did we miss? What doesn’t sound right? Let us know how you’ve learned to talk about mental health.

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Hilary is a multi-award-winning communication and engagement strategist, with a decade of industry experience. She has a knack for designing thought-provoking campaigns and facilitating constructive community dialogue.

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