CW: Discussion of mental health conditions such as OCD, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders and more.
As we go about our everyday lives, we often overlook the way that language shapes the narratives around us. Not only does speaking about mental health directly contribute to attitudes around it, but there are also words and phrases incorporated into our daily vocabulary that perpetuate stigmas around and reduce the significance of mental health conditions. There are simple switches you can make to help promote proper talk around mental health and mental health conditions!
Using mental health conditions as adjectives.
Mental health conditions are legitimate disorders that affect people’s everyday lives. They are not meant to be used as descriptors or to pass judgements on a person’s appearance or behaviors.
-Instead of: “I’m so OCD, I cleaned my whole room and even organized everything on my desk last night,” try saying what you really mean: “I was super productive last night and cleaned my whole room. I really like things to be tidy and organized!”
Having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is much more than needing cleanliness and organization, and doesn’t even always include these attributes. OCD symptoms primarily include having obsessions, characterized by all-consuming and uncontrollable thoughts, images, or impulses, and the behaviors that then attempt to alleviate obsessive thoughts are considered compulsions. The need to follow through on compulsions is often paired with anxiety of unwanted, yet irrational, consequences that would occur if not completed. Compulsions can be repetitive actions, such as tapping a door five times, symmetrical (i.e., needing to tap the door with both your right and left hand), or be rooted in fear of germs (i.e., not wanting to touch the door or else you will get sick from germs on it, or needing to wear a glove to touch the door).
-Instead of: “This girl is so bipolar!! I thought we were cool and then she switched up on me and started going crazy,” take a second to analyze the conservation. Make sure your friend/peer is okay, and check-in with them if needed when the situation has calmed down.
If you feel the need to talk about it with others, instead avoid diagnosing another person or using a mental health disorder to describe their behavior. Bipolar disorder is a chronic or episodic mental health condition that consists of both manic and depressive episodes that interfere with daily functioning and mood. It can be managed through treatment and medication, but is a complex condition that seriously affects many individuals and their families. Instead, say something like: “She’s been really moody lately. I thought we were cool but then she started behaving really erratically. I’m not really sure what happened, I’m gonna try to talk to her later.”
Making light of suicide in conversation.
Using “kill myself” or “KMS” as a casual expression is insensitive to those experiencing suicidal thoughts, people who have lost loved ones to suicide, and survivors of suicide attempts. It draws away from the seriousness of suicide, and makes it harder to recognize when an individual is legitimately in need of help.
-Instead of: “OMG I totally think I failed that test, I’m literally gonna kill myself,” swap that for: “That test was so hard! I’m so stressed I lowkey think I failed… I’m gonna be so upset when grades come back.”
Hard tests, a disappointing grade, and other stressful events can trigger suicidal thoughts, and it’s important to share how you feel if those do arise. Even if you don’t think you’re at imminent risk, you still deserve support in navigating challenging feelings. Consider reaching out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for 24/7 support or to local resources, but don’t resort to using “kill myself” as a figure of speech instead of just explaining why you’re upset or anxious.
Using eating disorders as adjectives
Eating disorders, like all mental health conditions, are not adjectives. Furthermore, there’s no “one look” for a person with an eating disorder, making it an inaccurate depiction of a person’s experience.
-Instead of saying “She’s so skinny, she looks anorexic”, don’t comment on someone’s weight at all.
People’s bodies are not up for commentary. Bottom line: judging someone’s appearance is rude and unnecessary.
Using the word “crazy” or “psycho” to describe someone’s behavior when showing symptoms of their mental illness.
-These terms have long been used in a derogatory manner to belittle or dehumanize people living with a mental health condition. “Crazy” is not on it’s own a bad word, and there are many ways to use it without diminishing another person’s feelings or misjudging them. However, in conversations regarding mental health, try to erase it from your vocabulary.
Language has the power to shape people’s attitudes around topics like mental health. Using stigmatized language furthers the idea that mental illness is something that should make people feel other-than or ashamed. Try making these easy swaps in your vocabulary to encourage positive conversations around mental health, and to end the stigma around mental illness and those struggling.