Words matter – compassionate language for mental health

Understanding mental health

Illustration of Language in Mental Health Research

We have hopefully moved beyond the old adage of ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. We know that words can harm. They can be emotionally hurtful, and they can spread misinformation. While most of us know not to participate in hate speech, throw insults or spread rumours, we may be unwittingly making mistakes in the way we talk about mental health. This can include inadvertently using language that reinforces stigma. Education on the “do’s and don’ts” of talking about mental health can improve our own mental health literacy, and have a positive impact on our communities. By choosing compassionate language, we can help to support those living with mental illness..

Supportive language

If you’ve ever been positively lifted by the kind words of a friend or stranger, then you’ll know first-hand the power of supportive language. For people experiencing mental illness, positive conversations have been shown to impact a person’s willingness to seek help and their sense of connection. At Mental Health First Aid®, our training programs skill people in the power of supportive conversations around mental health. While this training is highly valuable, there are little things we can all do to make our language more supportive.

Expressing genuine empathy and concern – by putting ourselves into a position of trying to understand the feelings and experiences of another person, we are able to express empathy. By practicing active listening and responding with supportive, non-judgemental words we can show care.

Simple phrases such as “I’m worried about you”, “Are you okay?”, “I’m listening”, “I’m here to help”, “That must be difficult”, “Can I support you in some way?”, can help a person feel heard, connected and supported. It can also encourage the person to engage in conversation, rather than facing their problems alone.

Connecting people with care through words – a major barrier to help seeking for many people with mental health problems is stigma. Worrying about judgement, social or economic exclusion and feelings of shame, can all prevent a person from getting the help they need. A person might not recognise the signs that they need help or be unaware of the resources available.

By having conversations that highlight support options and focus on positive connections we can encourage others to seek help. Depending on the context and your relationship examples of phrases that can help get the ball rolling include, “It sounds like it might be a good idea for you to talk to someone,” “Have you considered talking to a professional about this?” “It’s okay to ask for help”, “Would you like me to help you find some support?”

Normalising mental health – being open, honest and proactive about mental health topics in our daily lives helps to promote mental health literacy. It rubs off on those around us – letting them know it’s okay to talk.

The more we normalise accurate and supportive language around mental illnesses and the challenges we face, the more common help seeking will become. Whether at home, the workplace, school or in social situations, we can let people know that we are there.

Some things to remember: 

  • Use supportive, respectful, non-judgemental language
  • Refer to mental illnesses by their proper names

  • Initiate a conversation if you are worried someone isn’t coping

  • Equip yourself with the knowledge, skills and confidence to support someone through conversation
  • Talk about mental health problems the same way you talk about physical health problems.

Harmful language?

Our words don’t have to be overtly negative to do damage. Any language that promotes stigma, misinformation, intolerance or fear related to mental illness can be harmful. Additionally there are words that are more directly divisive that are still used too frequently. These words can be particularly hurtful when said to someone who is experiencing mental health problems. Avoiding the use of inappropriate terms can help stop the spread of stigma.

Derogatory and inflammatory terms – we have all heard words like ‘psycho’, ‘loony’, and ‘crazy person’ used to describe a person experiencing mental health problems. They may also be used as a form of insult for people who do not have mental health problems, perpetuating the myth that people with mental illness are somehow ‘less’ or ‘other’.

Overtly derogatory, hateful or hurtful language that targets and abuses people with mental health problems should not be used or tolerated.

Jokes about mental health problems – sometimes when something is difficult to understand or talk about, it can feel easier to makes jokes or downplay it. Joking about mental illness can make people feel worthless, embarrassed, ashamed, excluded and angry. Even flippant or self-deprecating comments can be damaging.

For example, joking that you are “So OCD” when you are in fact just organised or have certain habits can minimise the experiences of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder – an uncommon but highly disabling illness.

Dismissive language – talking about mental illness can be challenging. It can also be challenging at times to support someone who is experiencing an episode of mental illness. Sometimes people will reach for words they feel will diffuse or ‘fix’ the situation, but this is rarely helpful to the person experiencing the challenge.

Phrases such as, “It can’t be that bad,” “It’s all in your head”, “You’ll get over it”, “I can’t see anything wrong with you”, are unhelpful and may result in the person avoiding conversation. It may even prevent them from seeking the support they need.

Incorrect labels – mental illness is complex and no one expects you to have all the right words, or to speak like a professional. There are however commonly misused words and that can promote misunderstanding and stigma. This includes using the wrong name, for example confusing manic depression with bipolar disorder or mistaking schizophrenia for multiple personality disorder (dissociative identity disorder).

While these illnesses may share some symptoms, they are all very different. Diagnosis is complex and needs clinical expertise. If in doubt, ask for guidance or avoid using labels altogether. You don’t need to label a person’s experience to offer them support.

Inclusive Language

When talking about mental health or talking to someone experiencing mental illness, we should also be mindful to use language that is respectful and inclusive. Acknowledging and accepting people’s differences is an important element of well-being. Things to keep in mind:

Be aware of different beliefs, cultures and ideas – a person’s cultural background, religious beliefs, values and even social norms can dictate how a person experiences a mental health problem and what they are comfortable talking about or doing. Positive mental health conversations work best when we are receptive to tailoring what we say to match the interests, personalities and experiences of the person we are talking with. We don’t all have to agree on everything or have the same beliefs and ideas to be supportive of one and other.

Acknowledge gender diversity – the way people identify in terms or gender is a core part of who they are. When providing mental health support to a non-binary person (e.g. someone who identifies as genderfluid, agender or genderqueer) you may need to politely ask about correct pronouns to use e.g. ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ etc. For example, “My pronouns are she and her. What are yours?”.

Alternatively, try to use the person’s name instead of referring to gender when including another person in the conversation, e.g. “This is Alex. Alex would like to talk to someone about some recent difficulties.” Using the correct pronouns shows someone that you accept who they are, which can make them feel safer and more supported.


Being an ally to improve mental health literacy

Whether in a conversation with someone who is experiencing mental health problems, or in conversation with others at home, at work or socially, the words we choose and the way we deliver them matters. While no one expects you to be a mental health expert, you can help reduce stigma and improve mental health literacy simply by practicing some of the things addressed in this article. Three tips to get you started are:

  1. Use correct, compassionate and supportive language when talking about mental health
  2. If you are unsure, find out more – ask someone, seek information or get training
  3. Help educate others – call out damaging or stigmatising language, and promote optimism in conversations about mental health and help seeking.

Learn More About our Training

Understanding how to talk about mental health is an important skill. Many people feel uncomfortable and unprepared and this can mean the conversation never starts at all. Mental Health First Aid courses teach you how to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health problems or a crisis such as thoughts of suicide. You’ll gain the confidence to give the most effective support you can and learn how and when when to recommend and access professional help.

A conversation could change a life and learning the right skills can make the difference.

Click below to learn more about our full range of courses.

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