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The Power of Language

When someone breaks an arm, they are rushed to the emergency room. The doctor who treats the injury will assess the damage and most likely cast the arm for healing to take place. A few months later, the cast will be removed. Life can resume as if no break even occurred. The care given to our physical well-being is something we as a society take very seriously. The solution for most physical conditions is usually concise. If you have an infection, you take antibiotics. If you have a deep cut, you get stitches. What happens when the ailment is within the brain? How do we fix things we cannot see with the naked eye or via lab test?

While this question has plagued many scientists and scholars, the unknown of mental health conditions can further the stigma. Working towards a cure or treatment plan is important in breaking down the barriers. However, we as a community need to work upstream to make sure individuals in need get the necessary help. To begin, we need to use safe and positive language to encourage empowerment and support.

The most important tool in communicating with anybody – mentally affected or not – is respect. Using respectable language is an important step in reducing the stigma that surrounds mental health. What does that look like? Let’s take a look at a couple words that have gained some spotlight: disorder and disease. According to The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, the word “disorder” is defined as “a disturbance or derangement that affects the function of the mind or body.”  Mental conditions are considered true disorders of the brain and using this terminology seems to appropriate the severity. In the same medical dictionary, the word “disease” is defined as “a pathological condition of a body part, an organ, or a system resulting from various causes, such as infection, genetic defect, or environmental stress, and characterized by an identifiable group of signs or symptoms.” The causes of mental conditions can be a difficult subject for those working in the field as we cannot yet pinpoint the exact causes of most mental illnesses. This point leads to heavy arguments against using the word disease as a description.

The use of person-first language is critical to ensure recovery-oriented and person-centered support. However we categorize mental health conditions, it is important for people to be seen first as just that; a person. A person is not seen as just their illness, but as an individual with personal strengths, passions, and goals. Examples of person-first language include:

  • He/She has bipolar disorder – instead of saying He/She is bipolar
  • He/She has schizophrenia – instead of saying He/She is schizophrenic
  • He/She has a mental health condition – instead of saying He/She is mentally ill

A recent turn in mental health language resulted in the use of the term “lived experience.” This refers to someone who has had challenges in their daily life related to their experience with a mental health condition. On the opposite side of the spectrum, some prefer “identity-first” language where they accept their illness as their classifying factor. Others have a simplistic view: Daniel Bowman Jr., an English Professor, said, “I’m autistic, and I like being called that. I don’t consider it “identity first” language; it’s merely an adjective. ‘A person with autism’ feels unwieldy and awkward to me. I’m also an English professor and writer, not ‘a person who teaches literature at the college level’ or ‘a human being who writes.’ But that’s just me. I have complete and utter respect for those whose preferences differ from mine, and I honor those preferences when I’m made aware of them.” Ultimately, the choice of words to describe someone with a mental condition is up to them. When talking with someone, they should be identified by the language or title they feel most comfortable with. Simply ask how they would like to be addressed.

So, how do you communicate with someone you are concerned about? What if someone you know has been acting different lately and you have noticed a few changes in their behavior? What do you say? Start off by letting the person know how concerned you are and that you have noticed a few behaviors that worry you. Once they know how much you care about them, follow up with one or more of these questions:

  • Can we talk about what you are experiencing? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?
  • What do you want me to know about what you are feeling?
  • Who or what has helped you deal with similar issues in the past?
  • Do you know of others who have experienced these types of problems who you can talk to?
  • Have you thought about getting help?
  • What can I do to support you through this?

When a friend or a family member shows signs or symptoms of a mental health condition, there are many ways you can offer your support:

  • Find out if they are receiving care – if not, connect them to resources and offer to drive or walk them there.
  • Show your support by asking questions and listening to their ideas.
  • Remind the person that help is available for them and that mental health conditions are treatable. Some have it so ingrained that mental health is something that you have or don’t have and that’s it. Reassure your friend or family member that you will help them get to the treatment they need.

While this article is a jumping off point for using appropriate language to start the conversation, the links below can also guide you in other ways on how to approach those who may need mental health support. The most important thing to remember: Listen and respect the person who is dealing with the issue. You cannot know what they possibly had to go through or are continuing to go through day to day. Make sure to remind them of their worth to you and that you want them to seek help and get better, whatever that may look like for them. And let them know you are going to help them get to their goals. Remember, your words can impact another, more than you may know. “To the world you may be one person but to one person you may be the world.” – Bill Wilson


Janae Shillito, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation

Janae Shillito is the newest edition to The Kim Foundation and serves as Project Coordinator. She holds two science degrees with her alma maters including the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Janae’s love of volunteering and helping those without a voice created a strong desire to become a part of the non-profit world. She enjoys instructing kickboxing classes, reading a good book, and being outside with her husband, Cory, and Rottweiler, Hank.