Mental Health Awareness – Words Matter
Words can empower, inspire, uplift, and heal. Words can also disempower, wound, humiliate, and shame. Words matter.
Talking about mental health and mental illness can feel like you’re stepping into a linguistic minefield, never sure if there’s a right or wrong thing to say or way to talk about it.
It’s a large barrier and a difficult space to navigate, if unprepared. Small changes in language make an immeasurable difference.
I believe in the evolution of language and the science behind why words matter.
HOW WORDS HURT
Generations of people grew up where “loony”, “psycho”, “schizoid”, “alcoholic”, “junkie”, and “crazy” were not only a part of their everyday language but acceptable as part of their everyday language.
Today, those terms are outdated and stigmatizing.
As linguist Valerie Fridland, Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today: “… ‘each word has its own history.’ While we often use words without knowing … broader histories, that doesn’t mean this history is forgotten by all, or that our positions relative to this history will be the same.”
If you haven’t experienced a particular history, it’s not entirely instinctual to perceive how another person internalizes a word or an expression.
The science behind language. When we hear words, the emotional part of our brains undergoes what scientists and psychologists call “associative activation” which describes the cascade of brain activity that happens when we see or hear a word. That word “brings an idea, and an idea triggers many other ideas … [and we keep] making connections between all those ideas by resurfacing memories, which in turn recall emotions, that then bring other reactions.”
Our brains respond to words without even realizing it. If you’ve never experienced a mental health crisis or lived with mental illness, it may not instinctually occur to you that specific words or phrases may cause someone harm. That’s not a criticism—it’s a true and judgment-free statement.
THINGS TO AVOID SAYING (AND WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY INSTEAD)
Imagine a conversation happening around the water cooler, at your company. Your employees are casually talking about Adam, an employee who recently took leave for alcohol misuse disorder and depression.
You overheard 2 different conversations.
“Did you hear about Adam? He totally lost it – that “psycho alcoholic” just checked himself into the loony bin. I am going to stay far away from that “nut job” when he returns to work. I don’t want to be associated with that screwball.”
“I am proud of Adam for asking for help. I see him as a person living with alcohol misuse disorder and depression. I’m glad he felt safe enough to talk and I’m glad he accessed professional resources. I’ll do anything I can to support him and his return to work.”
And maybe someone else says, “Yeah. Because of him, I feel like I can talk about the stress and anxiety I’ve been feeling.”
Now: Which workplace would you be proud to lead?
The second conversation included person centered language vs. stigmatizing words. Do you feel the difference between conversations?
Person centered language focuses on the person first and not the illness or condition they live with.
3 KEY ELEMENTS OF A PERSON-CENTERED LANGUAGE
- Focus on the person, not the condition.
A mental health condition (or physical or other condition) is only one aspect of a person’s life, not the defining characteristic.
a. Preferred: She is a person living with bipolar disorder.
b. Not preferred: She is bipolar.
- Be specific.
Mental illness is a general condition. Specific disorders are types of mental illness.
a. Preferred: He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
b. Not preferred: He was mentally ill.
- Avoid derogatory or victimizing language.
Avoid terms like “psycho”, “crazy” or “junkie”, and words like “suffering” or “victim” when talking about mental health conditions.
a. Preferred: She is a person living with substance misuse disorder.
b. Not preferred: She’s a drug addict.
c. Preferred: She is a person living with depression.
d. Not preferred: She suffers from depression.
People living with mental health conditions might choose to talk about it in different terms. Some people might identify as someone living with a mental health condition or mental health diagnosis, while others prefer to say they have a mental health challenge or needs, or a mental health disability.
The important takeaway is that people are more than physical, mental, or other conditions. That’s the guiding light for re-shaping your language.
Words matter when creating a mentally healthy workplace. A mentally healthy workplace is where employees feel safe, secure, and comfortable talking about mental health challenges.
Creating a safe, inclusive environment doesn’t just help individuals—it helps your bottom line, because happier, healthier people are more productive employees. A positive workplace culture embraces inclusivity and compassion and celebrates individuals for their talents and contributions.
Shifting to person-centered language decreases stigma and creates safer space for open conversations about mental health in every environment—including your workplace.
Change is hard, and change is scary. An immediate action is to make a conscious decision to embrace person-centered language in your conversations in your workplace, and your life.
Words matter. You matter.
For more resources on stigma and person centered language, visit https://www.hrflorida.org/page/Wellness
Kim LaMontagne, MBA is President/CEO of Kim LaMontagne, LLC, Corporate Mental Health Trainer, International Speaker, and Author. She is also the Wellbeing Director for HR Florida State Council. Her mission is to share her lived experience and train leaders to create a culture of safety in the workplace where everyone feels safe asking for help. Lives depend on it.