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  • Susan Mader, MSSW, CPS

Mental Health Language: Words that are respectful and words that just plain hurt.

Words can make us feel good, and they can cause us to feel bad. Words and labels used to describe people living with mental health conditions can hurt. Certain language sensationalizes mental illness and reinforces stigma.

I cannot count how many times I have heard the word “crazy.” It is often used as a buzz word, rather than a derogatory name for someone living with a mental health condition. But it is used just the same. Do you find the use of the word “crazy” unsettling?

Person-first language is a simple approach to choosing words that are appropriate and respectful. It focuses on peoples’ abilities instead of their limitations. It always puts the person first before the mental health condition.

For example, instead of calling someone a schizophrenic, or “schizo” the more respectful phrase is “a person who lives with schizophrenia,” or “is being treated for schizophrenia.”

Those in treatment are also targeted by derogatory words. They may be referred to as seeing a “shrink” rather than a psychiatrist or being in a “mental hospital” instead of a mental health facility. Anti-depressant medication may be called “happy pills” rather than an effective medication that targets the imbalance of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Mental health conditions are biological conditions through no fault of one's own. People are just misinformed.

Negative references to treatment can cause shame and undermine an individual’s willingness to seek help.

I had an experience while working as a case manager in Madison. One of my clients was referred to as a “fruit loop, foaming at the mouth.” This statement was made by someone in law enforcement!

This happened many, many years ago. Granted the incident occurred in a rural area. Things are greatly improving. Police officers are taking trainings called Crisis Intervention Training on major mental illnesses, de-escalation techniques and local resources that assist those experiencing a mental health crisis.

Part of their training is to come to The Gathering Place to hear our experiences with law enforcement, good and bad.

I like the person-first language. It is a great concept. My daily affirmation is “My mental illness does not define me.”

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