Written by Emmy Crouter, MSW. As it’s Mental Health Awareness Month we at the Pennock Center find ourselves thinking about what we can do on a day to day basis to combat the stigma surrounding mental health. This year, we challenge ourselves and those around us to turn inward and examine our own actions that either help or hurt those around us struggling with a mental health issue.
Have you ever called the weather bipolar? Referred to a person or situation as crazy? Said something was insane? I am definitely guilty of using this kind of language to describe the everyday things in life without a second thought. However, in doing so, I am actually contributing to the stigma surrounding mental health that prevents people from seeking the help they need. As a therapist, the number one barrier to treatment as reported by clients is the fear of being labeled “crazy.” I would never call a client crazy so why should I use that word at all? “Crazy” is the kind of language that keeps people from getting the help they need.
Together we can change our word-habits to positively impact ourselves and those around us. Consider referring to the weather as unpredictable or wild. After all, natural phenomenon does not psychologically go between phases of mania and depression as bipolar disorder does. Imagine saying that the weather is bipolar in front of someone actually struggling with the illness – you wouldn’t. But unfortunately, many people keep their diagnoses and struggles a secret because of such stigma. Best to simply drop diagnostic terms when describing things unrelated to mental health. This includes pseudo-diagnostic words such as “psycho,” “schizo,” and “retarded.”
Consider too how you might restructure your sentences when talking about someone experiencing a mental health issue. Does the person in question prefer to be called schizophrenic or referred to as someone with schizophrenia? This is personal preference, but if you’re unsure, use person-first language unless otherwise indicated. For example, you wouldn’t call someone who has cancer “cancerous.” Yikes! You would say, “Jenny has breast cancer.” Practice that with borderline personality disorder: “Paul has a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder,” rather than “Paul is borderline.” Hear the difference?
Changing your language is challenging and no one is perfect. We present this challenge to alter your language not in the name of political correctness, but out of mindfulness for those around us struggling with mental health issues. Breaking the stigma starts with each of us individually. Let’s show each other and those around us that we care about mental health and take it seriously, for as we know, this can often be life or death.