Why Inclusive Mental Health Language Matters

November 16, 2021

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 every day, 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 a five considerations to keep in mind:

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

According to the 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, an estimated 20% of adults in the U.S. live with a mental health disorder (51.5 million).  That means that one in five people you know, meet or encounter might be living with a mental disorder and a one in five chance of making someone feel uncomfortable, alienated or offended with non-inclusive mental health language.  

2. We react to words without realizing it

Words are powerful, we know this. The very first line of a message can open minds or close them off to the rest of the message. 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.  

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 "followers" 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 and outdated. Be three thousand and eight, not two thousand and late.    

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.

5. 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.  


For more reading, examples of commonly misused mental health language, and what to say instead:  

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Nicole Ng

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