Language has power. How we communicate plays a vital role in shaping our perceptions, attitudes and understandings. And through our communication styles and choice of language, we can either uplift and empower — or perpetuate stigmas and misconceptions.
When it comes to mental health, the way we communicate holds significance. From word choice to nuance, the way we speak and write matters. By approaching conversations with inclusivity, our language can create a more supportive environment, allowing barriers to be overcome and understandings to be shared. Why is inclusive mental health language so important? What can we do as individuals to drive inclusive conversations, and what should we aim to avoid? Let’s take a look at the impact of language and how we can use our words to make a difference.
Why Inclusive Terminology Matters in Discussing Mental Health
Historically and even to an extent today, mental health has been stigmatized. Research shows that stigma surrounding mental health can contribute to worsening symptoms and even prevent people from seeking the care they need. And how we communicate about mental health illustrates how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.
Think of it this way: There’s been a noticeable difference in the standard reactions between someone struggling with a chronic physical illness or injury (say an autoimmune disorder or a broken bone) and someone struggling with mental health (say depression or bipolar disorder). From the physical health standpoint, there’s often a foundation of understanding and empathy. But that understanding and empathy are equally crucial in communicating about mental health.
Staying mindful of our language is paramount as we strive to improve conversations on mental health.
“Language is critical in the role of helping to reduce the shame, stigma and some of the stereotypes that have come along with mental health,” says Kimberly O’Connor-Soule, Executive Vice President of Inpatient Services at KVC Health Systems. “We want to destigmatize language, especially at a time when we know people are suffering with mental health struggles, greater than ever in our recorded history.”
With the current mental health climate of the United States reporting higher than ever statistics on mental health struggles, it’s become clear that awareness and acceptance are needed. Think you don’t know anyone facing a mental health challenge? Think again. Current research indicates that 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 young people (ages 6-17) experience a mental health disorder each year — and suicide ranks as the second-leading cause of death in youth and teens ages 10-14. As we work towards improving mental health, the way we communicate about it has never been more paramount.
Practicing Mindful Language for Mental Health
It can be difficult to alter our thought processes and behaviors when using inclusive language with mental health. But once your eyes have been opened to a new level of understanding, there’s no going back. “When we know better, we have to do better,” O’Connor-Soule says.
When we use inclusive language in communication about mental health, we show others grace and acceptance. A caring and kind perspective is needed to converse about mental health, and there are a few key factors to consider while speaking mindfully about mental health. These include:
Language has often been used to stigmatize individuals struggling with mental health conditions. Words like “crazy,” “psycho” or “insane” can perpetuate negative stereotypes and further isolate those already facing mental health challenges. We can challenge these stigmas by promoting inclusive language and a more compassionate and understanding world.
Person-First and Asset-Driven Language
One essential aspect of inclusive language in mental health is the use of person-first language. This approach focuses on placing the person before their condition, emphasizing their humanity rather than defining them solely by their mental health struggles. An example of this would be saying “a person with depression” instead of “a depressed person.” Phrasing like this acknowledges their identity beyond their condition. Furthermore, we tell a truer story when we shift from deficit-based language (focusing on the challenges someone faces) to asset-framing language (focusing on a person’s aspirations).
It is crucial to avoid using derogatory labels or terms that belittle individuals with mental health conditions. Instead, we can use neutral or positive language that respects their experiences. For instance, using terms like “mental health condition” instead of “mental illness” helps to reduce the negative connotations associated with the latter phrase.
Tailoring Language to Individual Experiences
Every person’s mental health journey is unique, and the language we use should reflect that. Avoid making assumptions or generalizations about someone’s experiences. Instead, take the time to listen and understand their personal narrative. Using inclusive language means acknowledging the diverse range of mental health experiences and respecting each other’s individual stories.
Educating and Raising Awareness
Promoting inclusive language in mental health also involves educating ourselves and others about the impact of our words. By sharing information, resources and personal stories, we can raise awareness about the importance of using inclusive language and how it can contribute to a more supportive and inclusive society.
Creating an Inclusive Mental Health Environment for Children
Camber Children’s Mental Health understands that words matter and is actively working to help others adapt their vocabulary to empower rather than shame. On top of our mission to spread awareness, our team members and treatment locations practice what we preach — using inclusive language as a standard while providing care to clients, inspiring connection and supporting their journey to health.
As you learn more about mental health, you may find yourself wondering about the mental health of yourself, your children, or someone close to you. First, don’t be afraid to ask questions, openly discuss (using your knowledge of inclusive language), or get additional help. Second, many times, diagnosing mental illness isn’t straightforward, and comes with its own set of unique symptoms and unique treatment. And finally, understand that practicing inclusive language includes knowing that it’s OK to talk about suicide, especially when someone might be at risk. Sometimes, supportive family, friends and community partners, like Camber, can make a big difference in someone’s perspective and treatment of mental health.
Remember, inclusive language is a powerful tool in dismantling stigmas and fostering understanding within the realm of mental health.
When we choose our words carefully, we can create a more compassionate and inclusive environment for adults and children struggling with mental health conditions. By altering how we speak about mental health, we are changing the ripple effect of mental illness, creating lasting benefits for our children now and for generations to come.