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When Talking About Mental Illness, Words Matter

I was helping out at an event recently for a program called “I Still Matter.” We were raising money to provide art programs around the city for those who cannot afford therapy.

Part of the promotional campaign was for an art installation called “Inside Out.” Each piece depicted the artist’s inner feelings. Along with the artwork was a photograph of the artist and the artist’s story, showing that how you feel on the inside is not always how you look on the outside.

As I was explaining this to a man who stepped up to the booth, he looked at me quizzically and asked, “So everyone who did a painting is mentally ill?” It was not the question I expected and his tone was less than supportive.

I would have liked to have said, “No, not everyone who made a painting is experiencing a mental illness. Some of the paintings may have been completed by caregivers or loved ones of someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness. Since one in five children and one in four adults in the United States experiences mental illness in any given year, I can guarantee that someone you know, care for, or love has had some type of mental illness at some point in their life and they deserve to be supported, understood, and receive appropriate medical care.”

But that’s not what I said.

What I said was “yes,” which isn’t exactly a correct answer. Later I remembered that I was asked either to write a guest blog article for “I Still Matter” or produce a painting depicting how I felt about my son’s illness. Since I have very little visual artistic talent I chose the writing.

Because I was flustered and said yes to this man, he appeared to dismiss the validity of the project. By not responding correctly I allowed him to continue to promote the stigma that people who are “mentally ill” are not worthy of his support. That being “mentally ill” was some sort of curse and the illness they lived with defined who they were.

To say “those people are mentally ill” is throwing them in a pile and brushing them with the same label. It’s saying they are nothing but “mentally ill.” The words “mentally ill” can be unfair.

The American Psychiatric Association gives several examples of words and phrases that are more appropriate. A few examples of these are “She has a mental health problem or challenge” instead of “She is mentally ill/emotionally disturbed/insane/psycho.” Instead of “suffering with, or a victim of, a mental illness” the association advises “experiencing, or being treated for, or has a diagnosis of, or a history of, mental illness.”

Language is important. James McNulty, head of the Mental Health Consumer Advocates of Rhode Island and a national authority on mental health said, “Words make a difference. They help us in how we think about ourselves and about others.” Use “people-first” phrases and words, says McNulty, “language that acknowledges an individual’s overall humanity, not a label describing one aspect of someone’s identity.”

“This is one of the last ground fights for civil rights,” says Susan C. Jacobsen, the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island’s executive director. “Those living with mental illness have been marginalized, discriminated against, and treated as an ‘other’ or an underclass throughout history. Language is one of the ways that we dehumanize people. It’s the mechanism of oppression and dehumanization. The way that we talk about things frames the way we think about things.”

So to the man who approached the “I Still Matter” booth at One Spark with judgment and ignorance, I say don’t dehumanize those with an illness. Acknowledge and support them. You never know when you might be the one of the four.

“Words Have Power” photo available from Shutterstock

When Talking About Mental Illness, Words Matter


Theresa Larsen

Theresa Larsen graduated from Florida State University with a degree in elementary education and a minor in psychology. She taught school in England, Wales, and the United States for over twelve years. She is a trained presenter and coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Ending the Silence”, a mental health awareness program for youth. She is also a writer and her writing credits include a Welsh children's book, an educational article published in the Cardiff Advisory Service for Education, parenting and mental health articles published on Yahoo, PsychCentral, The Mighty, The Stigma Fighters Anthology Volume 2, and her award-winning memoir, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother. Learn more about Theresa at www.theresalarsen.com/.


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APA Reference
Larsen, T. (2018). When Talking About Mental Illness, Words Matter. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 9, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-talking-about-mental-illness-words-matter/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 14 May 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.