When it comes to mental health, words matter

May 11, 2018 GMT

Certain words and phrases we use to describe mental health are so entrenched in our lexicon that we are unaware of how hurtful they sound. Here are a few to avoid, with suggestions for alternatives.

Crazy, nuts, deranged, insane

Why it hurts: These are derogatory words for a real illness. We do not use similar words for people with heart disease or diabetes.

What’s preferable: Nothing. Please don’t use them.

Mentally ill

Why it hurts: This phrase limits a human being solely to his or her diagnosis.

What’s preferable: A person with a mental illness.

Committed suicide


Why it hurts: Makes a tragedy sound like a criminal act or sin.

What’s preferable: Died by suicide. Took his or her own life.

Try harder

Why it hurts: These illnesses are due to chemical imbalances or neurological disorders. Can you imagine saying the same to someone with cancer?

What’s preferable: “I am sorry you are experiencing this. How can I help?”

Looney bin

Why it hurts: Trivializes treatment centers that can be lifesaving.

What’s preferable: Psychiatric hospital.

Suffering from/afflicted with/victim of

Why it hurts: Connotes pity and doesn’t acknowledge that people can, and do, recover from mental illnesses.

What’s preferable: Has/lives with/experiences a mental illness.

Using bipolar casually

Why it hurts: Bipolar is a serious illness and should be used to refer only to the illness itself.

Sources: Sue Abderholden, NAMI-MN; Mandi Latzke; Associated Press, speakingofsuicide.com

Gail Rosenblum