3 Common Mental Health Phrases We Should Have Retired Long Ago
If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
I am a mental health advocate, who does a lot of presentations. Often my conversations touch on the topic of stigma toward mental illness. I regularly refer to the language we use when talking about it, and how when compared to other illnesses it is regularly treated shamefully.
I’ve talked and thought about this so much, I’ve gathered up quite a few ideas on it! I’d like to share these ideas now, in hopes that if you’ve ever been hurt by these words, you can know that hurt is reasonable. Additionally, I hope that this can be food for thought that will encourage folks to think about their language.
Not everyone will agree with my conclusions, that’s to be expected — I simply ask folks to take the time to carefully hear my perspective.
So let’s jump into the three common mental health phrases we should have retired long ago.
Some years ago, I needed to go to the emergency room because my mental health was doing really poorly. After the usual waiting, I was sitting with a nurse who was taking my blood pressure and asking the usual questions. Right behind her, out of sight but easily audible, were two doctors talking. They were complaining about a patient they were trying to help, and I distinctly heard them use the word “crazy.” It hurt me deeply in the state I was in, and I contemplated walking out. I didn’t, and it’s a good thing too — I was in serious need of help.
The word “crazy” is ingrained in our common speech so much that we often don’t even notice it being said. But then there are those times it’s used in an overtly harmful way and we do take notice. The problem is, who gets to be the judge of when it is hurtful or not? And if it’s hurtful even some of the time, why don’t we go ahead and replace it altogether.
I think “crazy” is a lazy word. We use it in place of an underlying message we are trying to give. It often allows us to avoid saying something we find more uncomfortable. How often does “she is so crazy” really mean: “I don’t agree with her.” Or, “He’s acting so crazy right now” means: “He’s being violent.” I think we’d all be better off speaking rather than alluding to our true thoughts. It’s also a word that gets used a lot by people who are abusive, gaslighting or are otherwise being dismissive. It’s also regularly weaponized towards women.
There other similar words like “psycho, nutty, insane” that we use in the same way. So let’s go ahead and cross these off the list of things we say.
2. “Suffers from…”
I recently posted about “suffers from” on my Instagram, which was received with interest and lively conversation. Not everyone agrees with me, and that’s OK. I will make my case, and you can decide. I can, though, set the boundary that people not use it when referring to me, and so can you if you prefer.
Regardless, when it comes to discussing mental illness, I choose not to use the term “suffers from.” It is regularly used by medical professionals, in scholarly writings and in the media. Folks who have a mental illness also frequently use this term to describe their condition. So, what’s the problem?
To me, “suffers from” is a phrase that both make a presumption and gives an automatic negative meaning to the words that follow. It presumes that the condition that follows instinctively makes the person unhappy, unwell or in distress. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider being in a depressive episode to be fun, and at certain points, I may indeed be “suffering.” Yet, I feel this word doesn’t take into account that a person can have a mental illness and be healthy, full of hope or moving in a positive direction. I have a thyroid disorder and I have major depression; to me, it’s that simple.
“Heidi suffers from…” has been used by some media when reporting a story or interviewing me, and when it shows up I cringe. There has been a presumption that it is a neutral term, when for me it is not. I try to let people know not to use “suffers from” when giving an interview, but I sometimes forget.
If you yourself have a mental illness, and you prefer to say “I suffer from…” when describing your situation — that is up to you. I take no issue with that, as you are describing your own experience and there is nothing wrong with that. If you feel a change might be helpful, give something else a try. You can even get creative with it!
I think this is a great example of a situation where “when in doubt, ask” is a good idea to remember. “How would you prefer for me to refer to your illness?” “When we get to the point of discussing the depression you went through, what wording do you like to use?” And if someone says “suffers from” is OK for them, that’s OK too.
3. “Committed suicide.”
This is a phrase that has been considered problematic for a very long time, but it continues to persist. So, I’m going to take some time to talk about the origins of this phrase and why I think we should carefully retire it.
Some wordsmiths out there will say: “What’s the big deal, it’s an action word that describes what’s occurred.” My reply to that is, it is important to understand the context of why a word is being used. In fairness, you may not be aware of the subtext. As your Language Arts teacher once said… let’s dig deeper.
At various points in history, suicide has been designated as a crime. When we say “committed suicide,” the historical meaning is not “doing the action of” — rather, it is that of “enacting the crime of.”
For the most part, this has been removed from the Western law books (though not totally), and it persists in varying degrees around the world. To this day, in some countries, attempting to end your life can land you in jail. The roots of these laws are generally religious or have something to do with religious norms. This isn’t a judgment, it’s just me stating facts. All of this to say that, this idea of suicide as a crime is a part of history. (If you’d like to know more, it makes for a fascinating Google search. Hint: check out Thomas Aquinas.)
A person dying by suicide is of course a very sad and upsetting thing. Labeling it as a crime, though, in my opinion is helpful to no one. As someone who has experienced these thoughts, I know how much the fear of judgment can hold someone back from getting the support they need. “Committed” also has connotations of lights and sirens, and it influences how law enforcement and even medical professionals treat people having thoughts of death. By reconsidering the language we use around this, we could guide a lot of things in a more positive and helpful direction.
While not everyone who has suicidal thoughts also has a mental illness, the two are often combined. In fact, suicidal thoughts and actions are usually on the list of symptoms that together add up to a mental illness diagnosis. Therefore, in my view, if someone with a mental illness unfortunately dies from suicide, I think it is reasonable to say they passed away due to complications related to their illness. That phrasing will not suit everyone or all situations, but it is a suggestion to think about.
As I stated at the beginning, I’ve clearly given all of this a lot of thought. In fact, I have additional words and phrases I could add here to make an even longer list! In the interest of time your time though, I will leave it here for now. Again, as I stated above, please remember not all people with a mental illness will feel the same way as I do, and that’s OK too. I should also add I also on occasion make mistakes and may say some of the things I’ve outlined. There are also always exceptions to rules, and I’m sure that could be the case here as well.
Has anyone used these phrases about you or around you in a way you didn’t like? Do you agree that they are problematic or do you view them in a different way? Do you have other language pet peeves that you feel cause stigma toward mental illness? What are some words you’ve removed from your speech, what did you replace them with? Share your thoughts and comments below.
If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram as @mentalhealthyxe.
Photo by Abbat on Unsplash