Mind Your Language: A Guide To Talking About Mental Health

No, you're not 'a bit OCD'.

We all know someone who has described themselves as ‘feeling bipolar’ or ‘a bit OCD’. While it might seem harmless, this throwaway language is actually making it harder for people to receive the mental health support they need, warns Bupa and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England.

A survey by the organisations found almost half (49%) of people have used words such as schizophrenic and psychotic to incorrectly describe themselves. Women were more likely to misuse mental health descriptors when talking about themselves, while men and those aged under 35 were most likely to use the same phrases as an insult.

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Cal Strode, a spokesperson for the Mental Health Foundation, says the difference in how men and women use mental health descriptors is interesting, particularly when you look at “the wider cultural influences that are likely at play”.

“For instance, the internalisation of having their feelings and behaviours invalidated in a patriarchal culture can lead to self-stigmatising language for women,” he explains. “For men, the influence of rigid toxic masculinity within a patriarchal culture can lead to burying of emotions through the mask of humour and insults.”

Using language in this way is not just a sign of a negative effect of patriarchal culture, it also has an impact on how we feel about seeking help.

Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for Mental Health at Bupa UK, says despite seeing a positive change to people’s attitudes to mental health over the past 20 years, more needs to be done to tackle misused language because "if terms for mental health are regularly being used in a negative way, it can make it more difficult for someone to feel comfortable having an honest and important conversation about their condition, potentially delaying the time it takes for them to seek medical help."

So what words shouldn’t you be using?

There are two areas which need improvement. Firstly, taking mental health terms out of context or using them colloquially to describe yourself or others and secondly, how we talk about people with mental health.

Bupa and MHFA’s survey found schizophrenic and psychotic were deemed the most offensive terms when used out of context, with special needs falling closely behind. Describing others as autistic and bipolar was also considered harmful.

Making light of conditions can also be damaging and, according to Strode, perpetuate simplistic stereotypes. “The burden of dispelling these stereotypes can often fall on the people living with them and feel exhausting,” he adds.

Examples of this could include:

:: Using ‘bipolar’ to describe a mood swing.

:: Using ‘schizo’ to describe a person’s reaction or personality.

:: Using ‘that’s mental’ to describe something outrageous.

:: Saying you’re ‘depressed’ if you feel a bit sad.

:: Using ‘OCD’ to describe the fact you’re neat and tidy.

:: Using ‘psycho’ to describe a person you dislike.

The language we use when talking and writing about mental health is equally important. Time To Change has shared a set of guidelines for journalists which are also useful for members of the public. Do not call someone a ‘psycho’ or ‘schizo’, it advises, instead refer to them as ‘a person who has experienced psychosis’ or ‘a person who has schizophrenia’.

Other words which aren’t acceptable include ‘lunatic’, ‘nutter’, ‘unhinged’, ‘maniac’ and ‘mad’. If you’re talking or writing about someone with a mental illness you could say: someone who ‘has a diagnosis of’ is ‘currently experiencing’ or ’is being treated for’.

Lastly, antidepressants shouldn’t be labelled ‘happy pills’. They are simply antidepressants, medication or prescription drugs.

Changing the way we talk about mental health can only have positive repercussions in society. Bupa and MHFA’s survey revealed more than half of UK adults (53%) believe that people are more aware of mental health conditions than they were five years ago. And the more awareness there is, the fewer barriers there will be for those who need to access help.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@getconnected.org.uk

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