Words are powerful. The wrong words can be powerfully harmful, hurting people and causing personal harm. The right words can be powerfully uplifting, and encourage positive behavior and action. Words like certifiable, crazy, nuts, psycho, wacko, deranged, schizo, freak, insane, loony, weirdo, batty, demented, and odd, are only part of a much longer list of derogatory language from which I have drawn that describes people with mental health issues. These negative words help promote and reinforce the stigma surrounding mental illness. The stigma is as harmful to the healing process as the symptoms themselves. The stigma tends to keep people who are exhibiting symptoms of mental illness from seeking the help they need. Well, that makes sense. Who wants to be branded as “an odd duck” or a “weird wacko?” Who wants to feel ostracized or embarrassed? So, people ignore their symptoms. They tell themselves that all is okay. They pretend that nothing is wrong. They think that if they ignore reality long enough, everything will be fine. They tell themselves that if they remain stoic in the face of all that is not fine, the symptoms will disappear, and their lives will return to normal. But ignoring the issues does not make them disappear. Ignoring the symptoms makes them get worse. So we need to encourage people to stop ignoring their symptoms, face the fact that everything is not okay, and accept that their symptoms will not disappear on their own. But most importantly, we need to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness so people will be more comfortable with seeking help, and less afraid of what people might say about them having a mental health issue.
I believe that less “stigma” and more “comfort” starts with changing the vocabulary that we use to describe people with mental illness. I have found website upon website dedicated to exploring the words used to describe mental health disorders, and the impact upon the individuals who are affected by them. I am bemused that there are so many people who are trying to figure out WHAT IS the appropriate language when referring to someone with mental illness. What should we say, and how should we say it? We want to be sensitive. We need to be respectful. We want to be thoughtful. We need to be honest. WHAT ARE the words that will provide the vocabulary for a sensitive, respectful, thoughtful, and honest conversation about and with a person who has a mental illness? My favorites so far are two that I found on a website called BC2M. They promote the phrases “affected by” or “living with” a mental illness. So simple, right? So let’s use these phrases. Remember to use “affected by” or “living with” bipolar disorder, “affected by” or “living with” schizophrenia, “affected by” or “living with” an anxiety disorder. Get it? Remember it! Use it!