Language Matters in Mental Health

Language shapes how we see the world. The words we choose and the meanings we attach to them influence our feelings, attitudes and beliefs. Our language choices have a powerful effect on how we view mental health and people living with mental health conditions.

“Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well.” – Robin Sharma

Respectful Language

Language Matters graphicEveryone deserves to be treated with respect. Respectful language emphasizes the person, not the condition or disability. It’s a way to demonstrate respect for a person’s dignity and worth. This is sometimes called person-first language.

We talk about the health condition only when necessary. Before choosing your words, ask yourself if labeling someone with a mental health condition matters in the conversation. A person’s mental health is only one aspect of who the person is. If the information doesn’t contribute to the conversation in a necessary or meaningful way, why mention it at all?

Labelling can be harmful, but in some circumstances it may be necessary. If it is important, then use respectful language, which literally means putting reference to the person first in a phrase. For example, instead of calling someone “mentally ill,” a more respectful, people-first way of phrasing it is to say “a person living with a mental health condition.”

Don’t Say This Say This When Necessary
That’s crazy, psycho, insane, nuts That’s wild, bizarre, odd, eccentric
It drives me crazy It annoys me
Patient, client, case An individual needing mental health services
He is a paranoid schizophrenic
She’s an anorexic
He’s depressive
She’s OCD
He’s bipolar
She’s mentally retarded
He has paranoid schizophrenia
She has anorexia nervosa
He has major depression
She has obsessive-compulsive disorder
He has bipolar disorder
She has an intellectual or developmental disability
She is emotionally disturbed She has a serious emotional condition
He’s a special education student He’s a student receiving special education services
She’s an addict or substance abuser She has a substance use disorder
He’s mentally ill He has a mental health condition or diagnosis
Super utilizers, High-needs adults Individuals with complex support and service needs
Successful suicide
Unsuccessful suicide
Completed suicide
Attempted suicide
Suffering from mental illness Living with (or experiencing) mental illness
Those who… People who…

Personal Preferences

Language is constantly evolving. As times change, the words people prefer also change. To show respect in conversations with others, be mindful of the impact your word choices have. If you need to use a descriptive term but are unsure of the words to use, ask the person how he or she would like to be addressed or referred to.