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Language & Mental Illness

When talking about mental illness or when talking to someone who has a mental illness, there are certain statements we want to do our best to avoid. The words we say truly do matter and can make an impact on the individuals we are talking with. The list below has a few different examples. I encourage you to be aware of the words you are saying as you go about your day today and every day.

“You don’t look like you have a mental illness.”

There is no face of mental illness. Whether it be anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or whichever mental illness you are talking about, there is no face. Every individual that has a mental illness looks different and has had different life experiences. The thing with mental illness is that we typically cannot see it on the outside, but that does not make it any less real. So, if you know someone who has a mental illness, try and say something like: “Wow I had no idea you were going through this, what can I do to help?” A statement like that can make all of the difference for someone who has a mental illness.

“You can snap out of it.”

It is true that in life we all experience a range of emotions and for the most part we can cope with those emotions. But for individuals who have a mental illness it is not something they can just snap out of. Instead of saying snap out of it, try and encourage your friend or loved one to seek professional help. We know that recovery is possible for individuals who have a mental illness whether it be in the form of medication, seeing a mental health professional, going to a hospital, or even attending a support group.

“You are acting crazy.”

Words like crazy, psychotic, or lunatic are all words we have probably heard in the media or in our culture to describe someone who has a mental illness. It is best to avoid these words for a few different reasons. One reason is because they are not accurate representations of an individual who has a mental illness. Another reason is because they only add to the stigma which is attached to mental illnesses. If individuals who have a mental health condition hear these phrases, they may be even less likely to seek out help.

“Change your attitude.”

It is beneficial for individuals to change their perspective, but if someone has a mental illness completing changing their attitude is going to be very difficult for them. Also, a change in attitude is not going to be what helps someone recover from a mental illness. You could offer your friend or loved one support by encouraging them to practice self-care, but also motivate them to seek out professional help if that is not helping them recover.

The language we use when discussing mental illness is something that is so important. The statements listed above are just a few examples that we want to try our best to avoid using. When you’re not sure what to say, psychologist Ryan Howes suggests offering, “compassion, support, and stability in your relationship and leaving the advice to the psychologist or medical expert.” Ultimately, the best thing we can all do for ourselves and loved ones is to show compassion, grace, and listen nonjudgmentally.

Katie Zimmerman, Project Coordinator for The Kim Foundation

Katie Zimmerman joined The Kim Foundation in June 2019. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies and Sociology from Central College in Pella, Iowa. During her time in college, she volunteered at many non-profit organizations and took multiple sociology classes which focused on mental health. Katie’s role at The Kim Foundation includes running the social media accounts, assisting in the Youth Advisory Council, and providing mental health awareness and education to the community through A Voice for Hope and Healing presentations.