Words matter: How to communicate about mental illness

Words matter: How to communicate about mental illness

Many celebrities are becoming more comfortable with publicly sharing their mental illnesses. This helps advocate and destigmatize the medical condition that 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with. But there is still work to be done, including how society communicates about mental illness.

The medical diagnosis is defined as being in distress or having issues with functioning including socially, occupationally, personally and/or within family dynamics. Signs and symptoms may include changes in one’s emotions and personality, anger, isolating tendencies, absences in self-care, lack of hopefulness and feeling overwhelmed. Barriers to people getting help are often due to the myths, stigmas and inaccurate stereotypes that are placed on them by their environment, family members, friends or themselves.

“Inaccurate perceptions of those with mental illness include thinking they are incompetent, lazy, dangerous or weak,” says Monica Jones, a nurse practitioner at Aurora Health Care. “An example would be if your friend or family member was diagnosed with cancer or heart disease. You wouldn’t give them the above labels but would instead call them strong or warriors for getting help and going through treatment.”

The other extreme is self-diagnosing yourself based on online information. This can cause more harm by self-diagnosing incorrectly. Instead, you should seek professional help to effectively and safely diagnose and treat your possible mental illness.

“What is truly dangerous is when those with mental illness are mocked for bringing it up in conversation or for getting help like an appointment, counseling or taking medication,” says Jones. “Unfortunately, sometimes these stigmas can delay them from getting care until it is too late or at the equivalent of stage 4 cancer where treatment becomes drastic and harder to go through.”

Jones provides some mental health phrases to replace with safer, more accurate words:
  • Instead of saying mentally ill say person living with a mental illness.
  • Instead of saying struggling with a mental illness say person living with a mental illness.
  • Instead of saying drug addict or addict say person with substance use disorder.
  • Instead of saying suicidal say someone thinking of suicide or experiencing suicidal thoughts.
  • Instead of saying committed or tried to commit suicide say died by suicide or suicide attempt.
  • Instead of saying successful or unsuccessful suicide say suicide attempt.
  • Instead of saying opioid epidemic say rising or increased use of opioids

She says to help everyone involved, the key is to see people first and not their diagnosis. And not saying anything at all and avoiding a person with a mental illness all together can be even more troublesome.

Jones also provides a few tips on how listen and talk to someone with a mental health diagnosis:
  • Build trust and be welcoming. Naturally create a safe space.
  • Let them know that they are not alone and that they can always talk to you.
  • Have the person focus on sharing their feelings or what their thoughts are about. Actively listen to them without interrupting.
  • Don’t correct their language choices if they use terms above. Instead, model preferred word choices when responding to them.
  • Share stories and memories you have together.
  • Let them know that a suicide attempt or other actions don’t define them. Let them identify where their identity comes from.

If the person is not receiving professional help, Jones encourages you to talk to them about seeing a primary care physician who can help with an initial evaluation. Their physician can prescribe medication for the short-term and can help with next steps. This often includes establishing care with a behavioral health provider for a diagnosis, treatment plan, support and getting closer to recovery.

Prioritize your mental health by finding time to talk with a behavioral health provider. Find one in Illinois or Wisconsin.

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About the Author

Jennifer Benson
Jennifer Benson

Jennifer Benson, health enews contributor, is coordinator of public affairs for Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. She has 10+ years of community development and communication experience for non-profits and has a BA in Architecture from Judson University in Elgin, IL. Outside of work, you can find her planning the next adventure near water or rocks, re-organizing spaces, working on her Master’s in Public Health, caring for her senior citizen cat, keeping to healthy moving and eating disciplines and growing green things wherever she can find room.