Why Language Matters When We Talk About Mental Health


humanoid figure with a speech balloon above his head


You should never be defined by your condition. You have some symptoms but you are much, much more than that. It happens that sometimes people with mental health conditions are seen like that label by others. You are identified by your condition: the schizophrenic guy, the bipolar girl, etc. It’s easy to confuse the condition with the person but we should never forget that behind that label is a very complex person that deserves respect.

Details matter and the fact that we say “Joan is Bipolar” instead of “Joan has Bipolar Disorder”. You are not your condition. You are still an individual, with its idiosyncrasies. Language matters a lot because it shapes our perception or is it the other way around? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that language stigmatizes people and that has real effects like refusal to seek treatment and anxiety when interacting with people.

People with mental health conditions expect to be stigmatized and discriminated against. The media is responsible in part for the bad reputation of mental illness. When violence occurs and there is no obvious cause, it is immediately speculated that the perpetrator has some sort of mental condition. On the other hand, there is no real effort to talk openly about mental health conditions, see real people that are still successful despite the diagnostic. When it comes to violence, the truth is that people suffering from mental disorders are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence.

skull opened at the top, showing the brain. Brain has a band-aid,

Mental illness becomes a diagnosis that people try to hide due to its negative labels, stigmatization and possible discrimination. We still have a backward mentality when it comes to mental health conditions. People always saw the insane, the unstable ones as weak or deficient. It’s pretty much like that now, though people are raising awareness more and more. It’s not faceless conditions anymore: people talk about mental health, expose their identities (or not) but we are out there, spreading the word.


We should advocate for language that reduces stigma, using empathy to choose our words. Understanding the power of negative labels and names is very important. We could use language that doesn’t enforce negative stereotypes and never name or label someone for his/her condition.

“In the context of mental illness, mental health, and wellbeing, negative words can be experienced as condescending, isolating, and stigmatizing, whereas positive words can convey dignity, empathy, and hope.”

-Veryan Richards


“In 2017, The Royal College of Psychiatrists outlined eight core attributes of good psychiatrists, which include communication, humility, respect, and trust. According to Richards, this “reinforces a stronger, values-based climate which should influence the principles that shape the language and terminology used in person-centered mental health care.” Richards is a proponent of first-person language, which first acknowledges a person and then identifies a condition (e.g., ‘a person with psychosis’ versus ‘a psychotic person’).

Richards argues that the phrase ‘mental health problems’ is often too vague. She suggests this phrase could be problematic when used for common experiences, stating “we should remain alert to overmedicalizing experiences and challenges that would be better understood as a response to social or economic factors and normal human experiences.”

At the same time, she proposes that using ‘mental health problems’ as a euphemism for more serious illness or crisis is also unhelpful. She writes, “some current terminology should be adjusted if parity is to be achieved within the language used in health care.” Richards gives the example of times when ‘patient’ may be the preferred language over ‘service user’ in medical settings.

Richards believes that a language shift can improve shared decision making. She states, “the quality of communication can facilitate a ‘doing with, not doing to’ clinical approach.” She also cites the 2015 UK Supreme Court judgment, Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board, which “raises the status of shared decision making from guidance to a legal requirement and concludes that all doctors need the communication skills required to support this process.” Therefore, she recommends medical schools require students to be trained in communication skills.”


Psychiatrists and mental professionals are very important for this fight. They must use more empathetic language. That can educate both the patient and his/her family. Most people have some unlearning to do.

It’s much better now, though it’s still not enough. More and more people are seeking mental health treatment and more people talk about it, be it in social media or real life. That is progress and I see that millennials are much more open about it.

This needs to be spread and taught. It’s in our hands to change what we think is wrong with the language about mental health.

I have to be clear on something: I don’t support censorship of any kind and I believe that the change should be natural because it is a cycle: society’s view of mental health conditions change, people become more aware of them and language naturally changes. But changing our language is also a good way to help achieve the goal of people having more mental health awareness.

“Policing language is never popular and rarely easy. But it is perfectly possible to be both frank and polite. Words around mental health are not so much being banned as recommendations made so we can be sensitive. With that in mind, chatting to friends and colleagues, will I have another “manic” day at work? In all honestly, probably. But it’s hardly a chore for me to replace that with “super busy”.”


If we are non-judgemental, use more neutral or positive language, as opposed as words with negative conotation; we can make our friends and family more comfortable in sharing their struggles with mental illness. You can provide incentive for their treatment, be a shoulder to cry on and whatever you can do to help that person. If you have the ability that is. I don’t think I could help or take care of anyone right now. I’m only capable of listening and giving advice. I commend the people that have the ability to help others in many ways. Hopefully, I can do that one day to someone. Paying forward what was done to us is a very altruistic gesture. I don’t want to do it because it looks nice and then I’ll post a picture on Facebook. On the contrary, I want to help without any kind of publicity.

I don’t like the terms “mental illness”, “mental disorder”, and so on. Normally, I say “mental health condition”. I think it’s a much softer way to say it. Try no to use the word crazy, insane, psycho, etc, as they are very negative and very stigmatizing.

“Mad Pride, held each year on Bastille Day (because the people released from the Bastille were deemed “insane”) seeks to “reclaim terms like ‘mad’, ‘nutter’, and ‘psycho’ from misuse, such as in tabloid newspapers, celebrate mental health survivor culture and explore the positives of madness”. Susannah Wilson is keen to highlight the positives: “My illness has taught me compassion and empathy for others who are suffering in ways I wouldn’t perhaps have achieved. It has also tested my strength and courage allowed me to make peace with the parts of myself I’ve disliked.”



About the media and mental health coverage:

 “The media is extremely powerful and is consumed by millions of people every day. Therefore, we would encourage journalists to recognise the influence they have when reporting on mental health so as not to reinforce damaging stereotypes or create sensationalist articles which can cause huge distress and offence to the one in four people who will experience mental health problems.”

-Kate Nightingale

The media must be more responsible in the way they write their stories and present mental illness. For example, if they said that a certain individual was psychotic and killed someone, they should also say that most people who are psychotic are not aggressive, can lead normal lives with medication and are more prone to suffer from violence than to perpretate. Both sides of the issue should be covered.


Another thing that is also sensitive in the media, is the coverage of suicides. “Committing suicide” is loaded with archaic and criminal baggage. It doesn’t have a good conotation. “Sucessful suicide” is also not very accurate, as it should be an oxymoron. Sometimes the media doesn’t mention suicides at all, in order not to encourage other people to do the same thing. However, there should be a debate about this issue. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that one of my best friends died by suicide last June. He was depressed but refused to take medication. It was the stigma, plain and simple. He was also stubborn and didn’t like medication. It isn’t the end of the world to take one or two pills. If it helps you, go for it. No need to feel bad about it or thinking that it will ruin your health. Just avoid drinking alcohol, so you don’t overwhelm your liver. Alcohol is terrible for you anyway so you might as well stop drinking or just drink on special occasions.

All in all, all we ask is for you to be mindful of your words and the effect that they have on others. It’s not hard to avoid some words and phrases. It creates a more harmonious communication between people, without dehumanization or stigma.