Certain words and phrases we use to describe mental health are so entrenched in our lexicon that we are unaware of how hurtful they sound. Here are a few to avoid, with suggestions for alternatives.
Crazy, nuts, deranged, insane
Why it hurts: These are derogatory words for a real illness. We do not use similar words for people with heart disease or diabetes.
What’s preferable: Nothing. Please don’t use them.
Why it hurts: This phrase limits a human being solely to his or her diagnosis.
What’s preferable: A person with a mental illness.
Why it hurts: Makes a tragedy sound like a criminal act or sin.
What’s preferable: Died by suicide. Took his or her own life.
Why it hurts: These illnesses are due to chemical imbalances or neurological disorders. Can you imagine saying the same to someone with cancer?
What’s preferable: “I am sorry you are experiencing this. How can I help?”
Why it hurts: Trivializes treatment centers that can be lifesaving.
What’s preferable: Psychiatric hospital.
Suffering from/afflicted with/victim of
Why it hurts: Connotes pity and doesn’t acknowledge that people can, and do, recover from mental illnesses.
What’s preferable: Has/lives with/experiences a mental illness.
Using bipolar casually
Why it hurts: Bipolar is a serious illness and should be used to refer only to the illness itself.
Sources: Sue Abderholden, NAMI-MN; Mandi Latzke; Associated Press, speakingofsuicide.com