I don’t remember exactly how many “floor meetings” we had with our resident advisers when I was a freshman in college, but there’s certainly an early meeting that stands out. In introducing himself, one of our RAs mentioned how he’d appreciate it if everyone in the dorm made a more conscious effort to avoid using the word “retarded,” when, really, we meant something else entirely. It was the first instance I can recall in which someone explicitly pointed out the perils of problematic language to me—and the lesson stuck.
Our word choices contribute to social stigmas that can further marginalize individuals of all backgrounds living with a variety of conditions, illnesses and disabilities. As a writer, I’ve always believed in the power of words, but, to be honest, I’ve made some mistakes on this front and I’m still learning.
If you are too, here’s what you need to know—pure and simple: Always opt for language that’s “people-first,” and that centers an individual, rather than their symptoms. For instance, someone isn’t “schizophrenic.” They’re a person living with schizophrenia. Avoid casually using a serious mental illness to describe your passing mood or habit. It’s a point that Dr. Lauren Harb, a clinical psychologist at Silver Lake Psychotherapy previously explained on Girlbosslike this:
“People often use ‘bipolar’ to describe someone who has a mood swing or a change of mind, or they say ‘I’m OCD’ to express that they like to be organized,” she said. “In reality, if someone actually meets criteria for one of these disorders, it can be very impairing, and very hurtful when people underestimate the full extent of their impairment.”
Casual references like this to medical diagnosis help undermine the severity of certain disorders and contribute to greater shame around getting a mental health diagnosis,” Dr. Lauren said.
“There are more negative words than positive or neutral descriptors to choose from when referring someone living with a mental illness.”
If you still think being mindful about what language you use is trivial, consider this: There are more negative words than positive or neutral descriptors to choose from when referring someone living with a mental illness. In a 2007 study published online in the BMC Health Services Research Journal, researchers asked more than 400 teenagers in the UK to provide words and terms to describe someone living with mental illness.
Of the 250 words provided, nearly half of those on the list fell under the theme of “popular derogatory terms” while the next group of terms fell under the theme of “negative emotional state.” More troublesome, perhaps, is the fact that the study’s researchers believe the stigma of living with mental illness ultimately deter individuals from seeking treatment.
Moreover, when we resort to casually using ableist language in our daily lives, we’re sending a message that prioritizes a certain sector of the population over others, even if that’s not the intent. As disability justice activist Lydia X. Z. Brown told Girlboss, “Much of the time, people who do this aren’t having conscious thoughts demeaning people with psychosocial disabilities … Nevertheless, they are exemplifying a socially pervasive belief system that only some people’s minds are healthy, valuable, worthy, or desirable.” And when you rely on ableist language to describe someone, it becomes more difficult to name things like racism or misogyny, they added.
Recognizing that May is Mental Health Month, we’ve rounded up some problematic words that we can all stop using.
Here’s why you should check yourself before using the following words:
“Crazy” or “nuts”
It’s one thing to say you like watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and it’s a whole other thing to say your demanding boss is “crazy,” or that your aunt is “nuts,” for loving her dog so much. Notice a common thread here? “Crazy” is a word that’s often used to describe women and which helps further the stereotype that women are “emotional” while men are “rational.”
Let’s take a moment to remember that the term “psycho” is just shorthand for psychosis, which is a clinical term describing a series of symptoms (it’s not an illness). Approximately 100,000 people in the US experience each psychosis each year and early treatment can dramatically improve a person’s livelihood, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Like the term “psycho,” “schizo,” is another term derived from a clinical diagnosis. It’s shorthand for schizophrenia, a chronic and severe mental disorder which can be very disabling for an individual. The exact cause of schizophrenia is still unknown, but researchers believe that problems during brain development during birth might play a role and that many genes may increase the risk of schizophrenia.
“Insane” or “mental”
Calling someone “insane,” or “mental” isn’t just antiquated and offensive terminology. It also conjures up images of a bygone era when we had “insane asylums,” and forced institutionalization was prevalent in the US. Today, the number of psychiatric hospitals has dwindled to less than a 10 of what it was in 1955, following the passage of new healthcare laws and documentation of severe patient abuse.
How many times have you heard a newscaster or public officer refer to a mass shooter as a “disturbed” individual? Identifying someone as “disturbed” connotes that the individual is dangerous, or a menace to society and further reinforces the stereotype that people living with mental illness are more likely to commit violence. Little research literature, however, actually supports this idea.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder has somehow made it into the pop culture lexicon in a way that greatly diminishes the severity of symptoms individuals living with the condition have. Indeed, who can forget when the letters were reworked into a holiday sweater reading, “Obsessive Christmas Disorder”? To be clear, OCD doesn’t refer to being a neat-freak or being merely “particular” about something. OCD affects nearly 1 in 40 adults and is characterized by repetitive, unwanted thoughts and compulsive actions that interfere with daily life.
Being moody or experiencing a change in attitude doesn’t automatically mean you’re “so bipolar.” In fact, there are four different classifications of bipolar disorder which are characterized by dramatic high and low emotional states. These emotional states can range from mania to severe depression and differ dramatically from typical feelings up of “ups and downs,” an individual might experience throughout their life.
“I’m so depressed”
Unfortunately, depression is among the more common and misunderstood of disorders in popular culture. While almost 7 percent of the population in 2016 experienced at least one major depressive episode, the notion that being depressed is something that someone can “will” themselves out of persists. Depression isn’t merely feeling sad in a passing moment. To be diagnosed, individuals experiencing a major depressive episode must experience symptoms for more than two weeks and for most people, it impacts how they function on a day-to-day basis.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can help stop the stigma around mental illness, visit NAMI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness.