Being mindful of mental health terms

Being mindful of mental health terms

October 26, 2021 By Jill Campbell Resources

Language around mental health has come a long way. In the past, medical professionals and the general public commonly described people with mental health conditions in stigmatizing terms we no longer use. As editors, we can honor and further that progress by using conscious language to avoid defining people by their conditions. Here are four ways to do just that, whether we’re working on medical text or on another type of content.

Use person-first language

A person with schizophrenia is simply that, rather than a schizophrenic. A person with substance use disorder is not an addict or a junkie; they are a human with a treatable condition. Doctors don’t diagnose a person; they diagnose a condition in a person. Language shifts like these can help reduce stigma.

However, if someone identifies with terms we might not otherwise use, we should respect that and should not change their language. For example, describing oneself as an addict or an alcoholic is common in some substance use recovery communities.

Beware of bias

Mental illness and addiction are often associated with difficult experiences and harmful behavior. And while those things may sometimes happen, emphasizing them can reinforce stigma and, therefore, make life harder for those who live with mental health conditions. Saying lives with rather than suffers from and eliminating words like victim and struggle can lessen those negative associations.

Also consider common mental health stereotypes in the media. People with mental health conditions are often portrayed as villains and perpetrators of violence. This contributes to the assumption that all people with mental health diagnoses are dangerous and scary—but in reality, they’re responsible for only a small percentage of violent incidents and are more likely to be victimized than the general population.

Question this and other tropes, such as a character with a mental health condition being used as comic relief, portrayed as irresponsible, or shown as a “tortured artist” whose condition is essential to their creativity. Although it’s not always within an editor’s scope to suggest that an entire character be changed, it’s worth discussing whether these depictions are necessary and why an author feels the need to use them.

Look out for hyperbolic usage

When we see stigmatizing words like crazy or psycho, we can look at the context and try to suggest a more precise term, such as unpredictable, frustrating, or overly emotional. Instead of saying that someone is obsessed with or addicted to something, consider whether intently focused on or preoccupied with is a better description.

Addictive is sometimes used as a positive descriptor of things like foods or TV series. This can seem insensitive when we consider the impacts of substance use disorder and other forms of addiction. Words like irresistible and engrossing can be good alternatives.

By removing casual use of words associated with mental health conditions, we can avoid trivializing the experiences of people who live with them.

Err on the side of empathy

Conscious language gives us guidelines, and we each can decide how to apply them. It’s sometimes hard to know whether we’re choosing the most appropriate word or whether we’re overthinking things. But ultimately, there’s no such thing as too much empathy.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as of 2019, more than 20% of adults in the United States had a mental illness, and less than half had received treatment. Research suggests that stigma may prevent some people from seeking treatment. The use of empathetic, humanizing language might make those people feel more deserving of care and more likely to speak up. The more we talk about mental health, the less stigmatized it becomes. So let’s choose words that might make the conversation easier.

Being mindful of mental health terms was originally published in Tracking Changes (Summer 2021 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.

Header image by Daniel Thomas on Unsplash


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