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Mental illnesses: Terms to use. Terms to avoid.

Learn what words can be hurtful and alternatives to use


By Emily Bulthuis, MSW, LICSW
August 28, 2017

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Crazy. Unhinged. Psychotic. These are all insults that are unfairly used when describing someone living with a mental illness. And they are clearly inappropriate. But there are also terms that are used that many people may not know could be offensive.

I give my own friends and family, as well as loved ones of patients I work with, a list of words to avoid when talking about mental illnesses. While some people may or may not mind some of these words, it’s good practice to always be considerate. The more we work toward being thoughtful and showing respect, the closer we get to ending stigma that surrounds mental illnesses.

Don’t use: “Mental illness” as an aggregate term

Instead, use: “Mental illnesses” or “A mental illness”

Mental illness is a broad term. It doesn’t reflect what a person is actually dealing with. If you say that someone has “cardiac issues,” it doesn’t really offer much information. There are many different types of heart problems someone could have. Not all patients with cardiac problems have had a heart attack.

Similarly, not everyone with a mental health issue has been suicidal or depressed. There are many different mental health issues. And two people with the same clinical diagnosis can present very differently, too. So to be respectful of people’s individual experiences, use language that also acknowledges that mental illnesses are not all the same.

Don’t use: “Afflicted by mental illness”, “suffers from mental illness” or “is a victim of mental illness”

Instead, use: “Living with a mental illness”

Having a mental health diagnosis isn’t necessarily a negative thing. “Suffering” implies that someone is unwell and unhappy. People with mental health issues are able to live fulfilling, healthy lives. And there are a wide range of treatments. So there are many reasons to stay hopeful.

Some people with mental health issues find that their experiences have actually changed their life for the better. They may be more empathetic, more artistically inclined or better able to help others around them. We would never say that someone is “suffering from asthma” or “suffering from diabetes.” We would say they have diabetes, or they have asthma. A mental health diagnosis shouldn’t be construed more negatively than any other health condition.

Don’t use: “Mentally ill person” or “Person who is mentally ill”

Instead, use: “Person with a mental illness” or “Person living with a mental health issue”

People with mental health issues have far more sides to them than their mental illnesses. To accept someone as a person first is not only more respectful, but honors many other parts to them outside of their diagnosis. This is called using “person first” language.

Don’t use: “Schizophrenic; psychotic/disturbed/crazy”

Instead, use: “Person living with schizophrenia”; “Person experiencing psychosis, disorientation or hallucination”

We would never call someone “a cancer-ic” or “heart diseased.” People with mental health issues are unfairly labeled by their medical condition. People are people, not illnesses. This is another example of “person first” language.

Don’t use: “Normal behavior”

Instead, use: “Usual behavior” or “typical behavior”

There is no clear definition of what “normal” is. It can cause others to feel defensive if their experience is classified as not fitting into the category of “normal.” Using “usual” or “typical” is less critical.

Don’t use: “Substance abuse”

Instead, use: “Substance use disorder”

Those who struggle with the misuse of drugs or alcohol aren’t simply choosing to “abuse” a substance. There are often neurobiological factors and emotional health issues which lead to this behavior. Calling this a substance use disorder accepts these other factors. It removes some of the blame that comes with the term “substance abuse.”

Don’t use: “Committed suicide”

Instead, use: “Died by suicide” or “lost by suicide”

When someone believes that ending their life is truly the best decision, they are likely not seeing reality around them clearly. This is a symptom of some mental illnesses. To say someone “committed” suicide suggests blame. We would never blame someone for dying from cancer. So, we should use language that avoids blame if someone’s mental health issues caused them to die by suicide. 

Make It OK is a HealthPartners campaign that works to end the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. It offers tools and resources for how to have a conversation. Sign the pledge and take a stand against stigma. It’s an important first step in getting people with mental illnesses the help they need.  

About Emily Bulthuis, MSW, LICSW

Emily Bulthuis is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who provides individual therapy to adults. She works in Park Nicollet’s Behavioral Health department. Emily earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of St. Thomas. Emily enjoys partnering with her patients to support them in improving their quality of life and emotional well-being. Her specialties include co-occurring mental and chemical health disorders. She also works with family members of those struggling with mental health matters. In her free time, Emily enjoys listening to podcasts, cycling and spending time with her family and black lab, Lucky.

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