Mental health - the language we use

Mental health – the language we use

Part of my day job involves writing about mental health and after four and a half years of doing it, I have learned some things. Mainly that the language we use is POWERFUL. And that it should be treated with care and attention.

I touched on the importance of language in my post about demonising food and how the words we use to describe food can impact our perceptions.

The words we use to talk about mental health can also impact our perceptions.

And, perhaps more importantly, the words the media use to describe mental health greatly impact the public’s perceptions.

Like most things, there are of course two sides to this coin. On one side are the people calling for more sensitive language and on the other are those calling for freedom of speech, declaring that policing language is ‘political correctness gone mad’ (excuse the pun).

I for one stand on the more sensitive side. I also stand on the side of those living with mental health problems day to day. If you want to use politically incorrect terms to describe yourself and what you live with – then that’s gravy.

It’s when publications use stigmatising language that bothers me. It’s when this language slips into our consciousness and gets used in everyday conversation that bothers me.

But let’s think of the positives – what can we do? 

We can be more thoughtful. We can do some research. We can ask those affected what they think. The more we educate ourselves, the more we will be able to truly join the conversation.

To get you started I’ve jotted down a couple of phrases to perhaps avoid, whether you’re writing about mental health or talking about it (which, for the record, I hope you are).

“I’m so OCD.”

This has become sooooo common and I *know* this phrase has spilled from my own lips in the past. So I get it, it’s an easy one to mistakenly say. But the fact is, unless you have obsessive compulsive disorder, you are not ‘so OCD’. Even if you have OCD, it is not a verb, it is a noun. It is a mental health condition not a preference for things to be neat and tidy.

“I’m well depressed today.”

Urgh, the snobby writer in me just threw up a little at writing ‘I’m well (anything)’ but let’s focus. Depressed is how you feel when you have depression, a heart wrenching condition that strips the joy from everyday life. It is not something you feel fleetingly. Try “I’m well sad today” instead. Or just, “I’m sad”. No one should say “I’m well (anything)”. Ever.

“You’re acting so schizo!”

Right let’s get this cleared up once and for all – schizophrenia does NOT mean ‘split personality’. Schizophrenia is a condition that usually involves hallucinations, hearing voices and often a disconnection with reality/paranoia (for example believing that people are out to get them). Thanks to people misusing the term, many confuse it with another mental health illness, dissociative identity disorder. Regardless, the term ‘schizo’ should just be put to bed right now, along with ‘psycho’ and ‘maniac’.


These are just a few examples of phrases that have potential to damage others. Time to Change have a handy guide on language you may also want to check out.

What I want you to take away from this is not whether or not a certain word is right or wrong, but simply to be more mindful and aware of the power our words have. That and to read up a bit and learn more. Raise your knowledge, raise your understanding and raise your voice.

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