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I remember as a teen, sitting in the church pews at my local church. A visiting pastor joined us for the service and stood to shared a story with what I imagined would lead to some sage wisdom, as pastors are wont to provide. He shared his story, the details of which I no longer remember but, what I will never forget was his final words, “Be careful who you marry, some of these people are crazy and belong in Bellevue (a local mental health facility)”. My gut wrenched. Immediately, my eyes darted to the soft blue church hat a few rows up from me. I imagined the pounding of her heart beat, the tears that refused to fall. The swell of thoughts and feelings of shame and regret that may have been crashing in her mind. Unable to tell if these were my imaginings of her feelings, or a projection of my own. You see, just the week prior, our beloved church sister– finally gained the courage to share with us her life long struggles with mental health. Her experience with psychosis and mental hospitalization. The shame she felt that kept her from opening up all these years.

And now, in the house of God, a place she goes for comfort, peace, acceptance, and fellowship, her worst fears laid bare by a leader in her faith system. My heart broke for her. My heart cried with her. And as someone who was still working up the courage to share my own emotional hurts and pain, I also cried for the part of me who allowed that experience to push my own desperate pleas for help back down, into sunken, unseen places for another several years.

Flash forward, many years later. Now as an adult, having finally shared my previously unspoken truths, several years into my therapy and healing journey. Having now become a mental health therapist, and a leader both in mental health and faith communities, grounded in the reality of how harmful it can be to throw around mental health terms without proper care or knowledge, I make it a point to help others reflect on their use of stigmatizing and harmful language about mental health.

I’m passionate about this work, not because of that unfortunate moment at church but rather, because I know and have experienced first hand the transformative power of feeling safe, supported, and seen; the freedom and expansion that comes with sharing your truth, being witnessed non-judgmentally, and finally receiving the compassionate support needed to cope and heal. The ripple effects of healing, beyond the individual to their family, their colleagues, their faith communities, and beyond. That was certainly the case in my experience and that of 100’s of clients my team and I support each year.

It is with this in mind, I share this guide with you. Together, we’ll unpack commonly misused mental health terms and stigmatizing phrases and provide you with a way to audit your use of these and other terms in your life. We’ll explore intent vs. impact and address the common misconceptions that lead us to use these terms inappropriately. Finally, we’ll help you identify meaningful alternatives to using these terms and how to respond when some one uses these terms in your presence.

Why are we like this? The real cause for misusing mental health terms

Whereas I would never make light of another’s mental health I know that since that day at church and knowing how painful It can be, I have casually used terms like ” panic attack” or “bipolar” inappropriately. As part of my unlearning and deprogramming over the course of my mental health training, I’ve had to sit with why that is. Today, not only am I conscious of the words I use, I also include a stigmatizing words audit as part of training for the next generation of Clinicial Social workers and Therapists that I supervise. As we unpack all this

Most people don’t intentionally harm others, but are operating based on messages we receive from society that we simply have not reflected on. The result is we regurgitate misunderstandings about mental health and illness in our casual use of terms like “OCD” to describe moments where we tend to prioritize organization or order or “bipolar” to describe our range of emotions.

Thankfully, you don’t have to spend 1000’s of hours over the course of 8 years between schooling, unpaid internships, clinical supervision in order to reduce or eliminate the use of stigmatizing mental health language from your lexicon. The following guide will help turn up the volume on your awareness by exploring of common misused phrases and the misconceptions that go with it.

Your Guide to Destigmatizing your Mental Health Talk

Commonly Misused Mental Health Terms

Here are some phrases that people often misuse but actually refer to serious mental health conditions:

  1. “I’m so OCD about this” – People use this to mean they’re very neat, but OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) is a real mental health condition.
  2. “I’m depressed” – Used to describe being sad, but depression is a medical condition that lasts longer and is more intense.
  3. “I’m so bipolar today” – Used to describe mood swings, but Bipolar Disorder involves serious changes in mood.
  4. “I’m having a panic attack” – Sometimes said when feeling very nervous, but a real panic attack has specific symptoms.
  5. “That’s giving me PTSD” – Used when feeling stressed, but PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) happens after serious trauma.
  6. “I’m so anxious” – Said when worried, but anxiety disorders are more intense and persistent.

Stigmatizing Phrases

These phrases can make people feel bad about mental health issues:

  1. “He’s so crazy” – Calls someone unstable in a mean way.
  2. “She’s psycho” – Makes mental illness sound bad or scary.
  3. “You’re acting schizo” – Stigmatizes schizophrenia by calling someone unpredictable.
  4. “He’s a lunatic” – An old, mean word for someone with mental illness.
  5. “Just snap out of it” – Makes it sound easy to get over mental health struggles.
  6. “She’s just attention-seeking” – Dismisses someone’s real issues.
  7. “He’s off his meds” – Stigmatizes people who need medication for mental health.
  8. “You’re overreacting” – Invalidates someone’s feelings.
  9. “Man up” – Suggests showing emotions is weak.
  10. “She’s so borderline” – Used to describe someone as difficult, which stigmatizes Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Common Misconceptions

Some phrases show a misunderstanding of mental health conditions:

  1. “Everyone has a little ADHD” – Minimizes Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
  2. “You’re just lazy” – Misunderstands conditions like depression or chronic fatigue.
  3. “He’s an addict” – Labels someone by their condition, rather than seeing them as a person.
  4. “She’s just being dramatic” – Dismisses someone’s real distress.
  5. “You need to calm down” – Can be invalidating for someone with anxiety or panic.

Better Alternatives

To be more supportive and understanding, try these phrases instead:

  • Instead of “OCD,” say “particular” or “detail-oriented.”
  • Instead of “depressed,” say “feeling down” or “sad.”
  • Instead of “bipolar,” say “experiencing mood swings.”
  • Instead of “panic attack,” say “feeling very anxious.”
  • Instead of “crazy,” say “unwell” or “distressed.”
  • Instead of “attention-seeking,” say “needs support.”

Moving Towards Intentional Language

Our journey towards kindness and reducing stigma starts with the words we choose. By being mindful of how we talk about mental health, we can create a more supportive and understanding community. It’s all about kindness, understanding, and respect. Let’s work together to change the way we talk and make the world a more empathetic place.

For more insights on mental health and how to be a part of this journey, join our Village here at Healing Insight Therapy and Wellness Collective. Together, we can break barriers and create lasting change.