If we’re going to tackle stigma in the community around mental illness one of the most fundamental vehicles of change is to modify how we speak about it. Entrenched and outdated attitudes towards mental illness are revealed by the words we choose. It’s often only a few turns of phrase here and there, but many people unintentionally use language that undermines a person living with mental illness, using words with negative connotations that demeans their experience and creates barriers to recovery.

By changing the language surrounding mental illness we can begin to promote hope, rather than defining a person, or group of people, by a diagnosis.

This change is not just for carers or support workers. It also needs to translate across the broader community, finding its way into our schools, public and private organisations and particularly, our popular media. We are so used to hearing and reading subtly prejudiced language in our news that most of us don’t realise the impact it has on preventing positive attitudes and unbiased thinking. The Mental Health Coordinating Council has developed a Recovery Orientated Language Guide to encourage a switch in mindset around addressing mental illness. It offers alternative language to replace widely used phraseology that is not always conducive to recovery based practice.

Some of their suggestions can be used by the wider community to support a more positive approach to mental illness.

  • Try not to use sensationalised language such as “suffers from”, “is a victim of” or “is afflicted with a mental illness.” Instead, use more ordinary expressions such as “lives with mental illness” or “has a mental illness”
  • Don’t say “he is mentally ill.” Instead, say “he lives with a mental illness.”
  • Try not to define someone by their diagnosis by saying for example: “She is an anorexic.” Choose instead to separate the person from their illness by saying “She has experienced anorexia”
  • Rather than calling someone an addict, you could acknowledge that they have substance use/abuse issues without labelling them.
  • When addressing the subject of suicide, remember that suicide is not a crime. Common terms such as ‘committed suicide ‘or ‘failed attempt at suicide’ place blame and can seem accusatory. Try instead to use less sensationalised language.

Remember – language is powerful. Whilst these changes in the words we use may seem small, they serve to lessen the stigma and sensationalism surrounding mental illness. Being more mindful of the language we use when addressing and describing mental illness goes a long way to break down stereotypes and promote a more aware and informed community.

Have you ever felt marginalised by your mental illness or disability? We would welcome your feedback on this story. Contact us

CHESS Marketing Manager Heather is passionate about bringing NGO's into the future through digital marketing and brand storytelling. A big fan-girl of fantasy fiction, Heather enjoys switching off from the virtual world with a good book and a hot cup of joe.