It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week. This post is about how to use inclusive language to break down barriers for anyone living with a mental health condition. Word by word, you can help eliminate mental health stigmas.

I love the word connect. It feels inclusive. I wanted to convey a feeling of invitation and welcome to this space on the internet, so I used the word connected. I love that feeling of “somebody gets me” or just understands and still accepts me.

When was the last time you felt you were a part of something? Where do you feel connected? Who gets you? Think about that feeling.

Now, I likely wouldn’t appreciate connection as much if I hadn’t spent time on the other end of the spectrum: in disconnection. When and where have you felt a sense of not belonging? Have you ever had the thought, “no one will understand”? It’s not pleasant.

Often, I think about my students who may have felt hopeless and helpless in their lives. Not knowing how to ask for help or explain where emotions were coming from. It’s heartbreaking to think about someone suffering in senseless pain. Not knowing they can reach out and someone will understand, or at least listen and share their pain. Which brings me to the point of this post: How do we use words to connect? Why does language matter?

My general rule of thumb is to focus on words that help connect with someone as a person and avoid words that label and dehumanize. It’s easy to use dehumanizing words, we are surrounded by them.

She’s crazy.

He’s a nut.

That’s schizophrenic.

They’re a bipolar mess.

You’re mental.

If you’re thinking, what’s so wrong with those words? Put yourself on the receiving end. Imagine you’re a timid 13-year-old girl experiencing depression. You watch your classmates casually roll their eyes and sarcastically comment how another student is “Depressed? They’re so dramatic! What a bipolar mess.”

This is how the cycle of shame and stigma are perpetuated. These are words that push people away from seeking help.

Now imagine you hear someone say, “I’m concerned about her, she should know she can get help. My cousin was treated for depression last year and now she’s doing great.”

Feel a difference?

Aren’t we all a little more complicated than a label?

I remember an exercise in a classroom management class where the professor had everyone write down the labels we were given as students. Then we all discussed how these impacted us. It was an insightful conversation. Even the so-called positive labels like “good girl” have negative connotations.

Did you have a label in high school? Think about the labels used to describe you. How has it impacted your life?

People are more complicated than a simple word. If you’re someone living with depression, you are also a parent, a child, a spouse, a caregiver, an artist, a provider and so much more.

Words Create Stigma

It’s easy to distance yourself from someone by using words to disconnect or isolate. We don’t like ugly feelings. Is it painful? Avoid it. How often have you heard, “Don’t cry” or “I’m sure you’re fine”?

These beliefs lead to the idea that feeling bad is the same as being bad, a mistaken concept at the core of stigma. I challenge you to bring awareness to the words you use.

You might feel fatigue from all the “correct” language we seem to be bombarded with on a daily basis. I catch myself thinking, “Is that ok to say?” every so often. Nonetheless, I’m willing to ponder my words if it helps create a little more kindness and connection.

Furthermore, it’s important not to go around pointing out disconnection. If you look for it, you will find it. If you look for connection, you will find it. It’s a fool’s errand to think we can control all of the language that surrounds us. Better to focus on yourself when you want something to change.

What We Can Do

Learn more about healthy ways to eliminate stigma from NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Engage in interactive activities about mental health at Make It

Share these graphics as a reminder for anyone who could use a little help creating a stigma free environment.


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