The Power of Language: It’s Time to Change How We Talk About Mental Health



The stigma against mental health is a major barrier against people seeking help for mental health issues. The language we use in conversations with others can either contribute to the stigma or contribute to ending the stigma. What are you doing? – Building it up or breaking it down?


What was said

What was meant

“My OCD is kicking in.” “I want to stay organized/clean.”
“I’m antisocial.” “I am introverted or want to be alone.”
“They’re bipolar!” “Their mood changed.”
“He is psychotic.” “He is adventurous, loud, lives life on the edge, etc.”
“I’m addicted to iced tea.” “I really like drinking iced tea; it’s my favorite beverage.”


Self-disclosure: I’ve even had to check myself for using some of the phrases on the left. That’s right; I, a therapist, had to get politically correct. “Political correctness” has historically gotten a bad rep, particularly because of the way it seemingly polices our conversational liberties. People hurl “political correctness” in contempt as if it’s something that dampens their freedom, but at the end of the day, it boils down to simply being socially conscious of other people. In other words, political correctness means not being a horrible person, or just being someone who is considerate of other people. You mean all political correctness is, is being respectful of other human beings….? Sign me up!

To my fellow counselors, this means checking the way we communicate with our non-mental health professional friends and family, and even checking our friends and family when needed!

Why is it so important to avoid using phrases in the left column? Because these are actual conditions that people live with and suffer from every single day.

OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)*

What it is: An anxiety disorder in which excessive amounts of time each day are spent on obsessions (unwanted thoughts, impulses, images, or mental rituals) and compulsions (consequent, repeated, ritualistic behaviors). OCD interferes with a person’s daily activities and social interactions.

What it is not: Being a clean, organized person.


Antisocial Personality Disorder*

What it is: A personality disorder in which an individual tends to disregard and violate the rights of others around them. Symptoms can vary: disregard for society’s laws, violation of the physical/emotional rights of others, irritability and aggressiveness, lack of remorse, recklessness and impulsivity, deceitfulness, etc.

What it is not: Not having a large group of friends, being introverted or wanting to be alone.


Bipolar disorder*

What it is: A brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. (There are 4 types.) Bipolar disorder involves manic episodes (extremely “up”, elated, energized behavior) and depressive episodes (very “down”, sad, or hopeless periods).

What it is not: A usual change in mood.


Psychotic (noun: Psychosis)*

What it is: Losing touch with reality; seeing, hearing, or believing things that aren’t real. Symptoms include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see/hear). Psychosis can also include incoherent speech and behavior that is inappropriate for the situation.

What it is not: Someone who is “wild” or jokingly “acts crazy”.



What it is: A brain disease manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences. Includes distorted thinking, behaviors, and bodily functions that change the brain’s wiring to cause an intense craving for the substance, making it extremely difficult to stop using the substance.

What it is not: Having a favorite food or drink.

*Diagnostic criteria for these experiences are much lengthier than the above descriptions, but I know y’all didn’t wanna read all that! Contact me if you want all the deets. 


Making a joke out of someone’s real, lived experience which makes it difficult for them to function in their everyday life ultimately contributes to the stigma against mental health. You may joke about being bipolar when you’re really just experienced a valid change in your mood, but someone near is taking medication to help regulate their debilitating bipolar disorder. Or they may have even experienced their first actual manic episode, but heard your “light-hearted” joke, so they continue to live in silence, not seeking help. You may not have even meant it as a joke! But implying a mental disorder when there obviously isn’t one present dehumanizes and invalidates those actually struggling with said disorder.

Language is powerful. When I think about “power”, I tend to think in terms of superheroes and villains. They both have powers, but how they use their powers separates the superheroes from the villains. It’s important to note that the two roles are never set in stone and aren’t necessarily dichotomous! That is to say, if you’ve been guilty of using phrases in the left column when you really meant what was in the right column… It’s not too late to change.


Be a mental health superhero.


“Language is how we codify things. If we shift language, then we shift perceptions.” –James Leadbitter


Be well (& shift some perceptions!). ♥


Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 5.01.08 PM


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s