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Mental Health Awareness – How language used can contribute to stigma


It’s widely acknowledged that awareness regarding mental health is improving.  There is a lot more coverage in the media, household names have helped by speaking out about their own experience, and story-lines are regularly written in to television soap operas and dramas which help raise awareness of mental ill-health.  This has led to people being less afraid of broaching the topic which is great – however, there is a but that we need to be aware of and it’s a big one.

Words and terminology are creeping in to our everyday vocabulary, alongside other well-established language, which are incorrect and aren’t helping to reduce the stigma, sadly in some cases experts feel they are contributing to it.

Recent joint research from Mental Health First Aid England and the health insurance provider BUPA discovered that almost half of UK adults are describing themselves incorrectly, with “schizophrenic” and “autistic” being common examples.

When talking about themselves, women are more likely to give an incorrect strapline to describe their mental health, whilst men and those aged under 35 are more likely to use the same phrases as a slur.

Using the terms ‘psychotic’, ‘schizophrenic’, ‘special needs’, ‘autistic’ and ‘bipolar’ outwith their medical health context was found to be offensive amongst those surveyed to produce the report.  Casual usage of these terms can stigmatise those who live with such conditions and cause isolation rather than offering a supportive environment which they deserve.

There is broad debate and understanding of what is good or bad terminology.  All language is evolving but, in general, it is not helpful to use language that denotes the person has become their diagnosed disorder  e.g. “she’s bipolar”, “I have a schizophrenic living next door”.

This isn’t just a British issue; the American Psychological Association have produced guidelines to help journalists write about mental illness and suicide.  Using a couple of the above terms, the preferred language would be ‘has a diagnosis of schizophrenia’ or ‘is living with schizophrenia’ rather than ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘has bipolar’ rather than is ‘bipolar’.  In America it’s known as people-first language. The aim is to create awareness, so we stop labelling people by their illness and first acknowledge them as a person before describing their condition.

It is important though that people are comfortable enough to feel their way with language in each unique conversation, being authentic and taking the lead from the person they are talking to, communication and understanding being the key.

Some terms are so deeply embedded in our everyday vocabulary that we use them without thinking of their accuracy or impact.  Recent celebrity deaths have resulted in dialogues such as,

“Did you hear **** committed suicide?”
“Really, why would they do that? They seemed to have it all.”

As our expert trainer, Christine Clark, explains:

“The term “commit” suicide is ingrained in people language when it comes to suicide and it will take time for it ever to disappear completely.

The history of suicide legislation is very interesting and it is clear to see that we have made significant progress over the last 50+ years since this offence was removed.

Most people when they understand that it comes from a time when taking your own life was classed as a crime, like commit murder or commit an offence, can see that this is outdated and try to modify their description.

‘Died by suicide’ or ‘made a suicide attempt’ are evolving new ways that we can have relevant conversations in this sensitive area but it’s important to gently cajole this change and not stifle conversation for fear of offence.

Suicide flourishes in ignorance and silence and we will only progress when we can explore, learn & evolve together in a supportive way.”

All our mental health courses include a discussion around how everyday language can contribute to the stigma of mental ill-health to help attendees be mindful of the terminology.  You can view the courses we offer here.

If you would like to do some further reading around this topic, you may find the following articles of interest:
It’s time to stop using these phrases when it comes to mental illness
When suicide was illegal
Speaking of suicide – Language matters: Committed Suicide vs Completed Suicide vs Died by Suicide
Suicide and language – why we shouldn’t used the ’c’ word

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