Why Inclusive Mental Health Language Matters

November 16, 2021

[Updated May 2023] We've all heard it, maybe even said it:

  • "Last night's episode made me so depressed,"
  • "I like my desk set up like this, I'm so OCD."
  • "I still have PTSD from that."

It may seem like a harmless figure of speech or a creative, clever hyperbole, but misusing mental health language like this can be harmful and non-inclusive.  The use of mental health language to describe everyday, and sometimes undesirable, behaviors trivialize and stigmatize the real-life experience of people living with a mental health disorder.  

 In my goal to better understand the intersection of mental health and employee experience, I am reminded that mental health language is an important consideration in building inclusive workplaces. Here are six considerations to keep in mind:

1. Mental health disorders are more prevalent than you might think

According to the 2021 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, an estimated 20% of adults in the U.S. live with a mental health disorder (57.8 million). That means that one in five people you know, meet or encounter might be living with a mental health disorder. That means a one in five chance of making someone feel uncomfortable, alienated or offended with non-inclusive mental health language.  

In fact, this chance might be even greater when you consider the ongoing stigma and obstacles preventing some BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals from seeking mental health services and support. Among the many barriers to mental health, fear of stigmatization and/or lack of support within their communities, language barriers, lack of culturally competent and/or diverse providers, and fear or mistrust of treatment providers are common obstacles for marginalized groups.  

Additional readings and stats on this topic: 

2. We react to words without realizing it

Words are powerful, we know this. The very first line of a message could make or break a message’s impact and effect on its audience. This happens because, in an effort to make sense of the flood of information we encounter each day, our brains naturally make snap decisions to categorize and make connections to ideas, feelings, and experiences we have stored in our memory.  These associations happen all the time with such little effort they often go unnoticed.  

The continued misuse of mental health language strengthens these associations and results in a desensitization that further permeates the trivializing of mental health into the everyday, making discrimination and stigma unconsciously more acceptable.  

There’s even evidence to suggest that our brains tend to hone in on negative, rather than positive, information. A study at University College London found just that.  

Researchers exposed subjects to fictitious social groups, each secretly designated as “good” or “bad”. They discovered that the area of the brain associated with semantic memory – our knowledge of objects, people, words, and facts – continued to be active when presented with data that backed negative stereotypes of a fictitious group.  Meanwhile, that same region shut down when presented with adequate information that backed and confirmed a more positive perspective of another fictious social group.  

TLDR: Our brains are predisposed to learning negative, rather than positive, stereotypes! The more we expose ourselves to negative information, the more solidified the stereotype becomes. As communicators, it behooves us to go against this grain and make efforts to improve how we, and those we communicate to, perceive and speak about the world around us.

3. Inclusive language is forward-thinking and, well, inclusive!  

Our language is ever-evolving so learning and re-learning how to use words is something we've done all our lives.  Just think about words like "stan" and "going live" that were virtually nonexistent ten years ago, but now we use or encounter these almost daily.  Keeping up with the latest lingo helps us stay informed of the current times and connected to others.  

Being inclusive can also affect a company's talent pool and appeal to prospective employees.  More and more, a diverse and inclusive workplace is seen as a requirement for the upcoming wave of young talent who are seeking job opportunities and we are increasingly recognizing the intersectionality of mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). So, using words like “psychotic” to describe something that is erratic is not only stigmatizing, but also alienating, outdated and just not the vibe.     

More brilliance on this topic:  

4. Misusing mental health language is lazy communication

Using mental health language is not the best way to describe what you mean. Consider the word “crazy”.  It is convenient and common enough, but why settle for a catchall when you can be specific? We can do better than lean on overused and unremarkable words like “crazy” when we really mean “passionate”, “immensely”, “silly”.  

Another example is the outdated use of “OCD” to describe the tendency to be neat and tidy. This is an oversimplification of the complexities of living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  OCD is characterized by intrusive, irrational and uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions) that trigger disruptive, repetitive behaviors (compulsions) and has little to do with being a perfectionist.

So, what should you say instead? There are many resources available online – like this gem from our very own Dr. Farida Habeeb – that offer suggestions and alternatives to consider.  

Many people worry about offending or causing more harm if they say the wrong thing, but mental illness’ prevalence and underreporting is a byproduct of this unwillingness to have and fear of uncomfortable conversations. An open mind and a little bit of courage can go a long way. 

More brilliant resources on inclusive language: 

5. Our Words Create a Narrative

While we tend to think we see the world as it objectively is, the way we perceive the world is a blend of internal and external influences, not only determined by our sensory abilities – like seeing, hearing, feeling and tasting – but also by our physical abilities, our political views, and even how hungry we are. These skewed perceptions ultimately affect how we describe and talk about the world around us.  

The more we misuse mental health language, the more it shapes our perception of the world around us and we begin to perceive those stereotypes and negative perceptions to be true. Consider the topic of suicide and the use of the verb “commit.” The word “commit” is associated with perpetrating criminal or immoral acts, like “committing murder” or “committing adultery.”  While a few countries still criminalize suicide attempts, the US largely no longer does.  

The verb also has malicious connotations that feed into the false notion that suicide is brash and selfish, negating the pain and hopelessness someone experiences to consider self-harm as an answer.  The topic of suicide is a public health issue, not a legal or moral one. It should be discussed with compassion and understanding, not accusation and judgement. Removing the stigma from this conversation can create space for dialogue, foster empathy and even save lives.  

Again, the internet is a great resource on what to say instead. Alternatives to “commit” like “attempted” or “died by” remove the stigma and the element of shame and blame.  Likewise, rather than saying that someone “threatened suicide” - another verb that has negative implications of criminality, selfishness, and manipulation – saying that someone “disclosed” they are considering self-harm neutralizes the accusatory tone and removes the blame factor.  

A skewed perspective creates a skewed narrative, and vice versa. Understanding that your perception is your reality, and it might not be that of another, makes way for continuous learning through question-asking, open conversations and self-awareness.  

Additional reading and stats on this topic: 

6. Inclusive language creates connections, not guardrails.  

It's very important to note that inclusive language is not the same as being politically correct. A recent Right Track Learning poll (2021) revealed that 51% of people associate "Equality, Diversity & Inclusion" with "political correctness." However, there is an important distinction between the two. The objective of political correctness is to not offend, thereby using rules and barriers to mitigate and avoid impact.  

The focus of inclusive language aims to honor people's personal identities, a process that takes time, effort, and a genuine interest in making others feel like they belong. Instead of rules, inclusive language is built on a foundation of open dialogue, continuous education, and flexibility in the way we connect with others.  

In Closing

When thinking of DEI, mental health and other invisible disabilities are often omitted or forgotten.  Failing to use inclusive mental health language puts our organizations at risk of appearing out of touch and continuing to stigmatize mental health – all while missing out on opportunities to make real connections.  

To drive meaningful change, it's important for us to understand the cyclical impact of the way we communicate, think and behave. If you need help rethinking your communications, we're here to help!

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