Mental health awareness has grown exponentially in the last few years – thanks in large part to what’s been happening globally – but stigma still exists. Stigma can be perpetuated by how we talk about mental illness and the language we use, some of which we may not even realise is harmful.
Let’s take a look at the relationship between language and mental health and learn what practical steps we can take towards the removal of stigma in Australia.
Words are powerful
How we talk about our human experience has a huge impact on our life and memories. So too do the stories we choose to tell to other people, which is why language is an important tool for mental wellness.
One Good* Day NDIS Recovery Coaches are acutely aware of the impact of language in the work they do, which is why we lean towards using recovery oriented language with our clients. It’s language that’s respectful, free of jargon, matches body language and strengths-based. This allows our clients to feel empowered and safe because communication is clear and understandable.
Part of the challenge is that there’s still a lot of stigma and myths surrounding mental health. But using incorrect or derogatory language, even in a joking way, can alienate people from their communities. This is something Dr Dov, one of our OG*D Thinkers, writes about in relation to his lived experience of bipolar.
It’s important not to sensationalise mental illness when you’re communicating about mental health – both in everyday life and especially when talking to someone who has a lived experience.
So, what can we all do to start shifting the conversation?
Be respectful and non-judgemental
Whether you’re speaking with someone who is currently experiencing a mental health issue or has in the past, be respectful and non-judgemental. Avoid layering your own opinions onto what they’re telling you – practice active listening and acknowledge where they’re at.
Words and phrases to avoid
If you’re actively committed to changing your language around mental health, here are some words or phrases you can omit from your vocabulary:
- Using words like ‘nutter’, ‘mad’, ‘schizo’, ‘lunatic’ or ‘psycho’ to refer to anyone experiencing mental illness
- Talking about prescribed medication as ‘happy pills’, psychologists as ‘shrinks’, or hospital inpatient services as ‘mental institutions’
- Calling someone ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘an anorexic’.
You may also catch yourself using the words above to describe other things in life that aren’t related to mental health. For example, you might describe your week as ‘crazy busy’ or ‘mental’. Pay attention to the language you use in every part of daily life, not just specific to wellbeing, and see if you can start to use more empowering words.
What to say instead
When it comes to speaking about mental health issues, it starts by thinking about the person first and their illness second. So instead of any of the words or phrases above, you might like to say:
- They are ‘living with bipolar’ or have been ‘diagnosed with schizophrenia’
- Their behaviour was ‘unusual or unexpected’
- Use the correct name for mental health supports, like ‘antidepressants’, ‘psychotherapists’ or ‘recovery programs’.
It’s okay to make mistakes when you’re learning something new, and this is no exception. If you do find yourself stumbling over your words, take a moment to acknowledge your error and apologise if necessary. Then, keep practicing. Like a muscle, you’ll build strength in this area with time and focused attention.
Take the first step towards that one good* day