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Do the Words Matter?: The Language We Use for Mental Health


The language we use when talking about mental health. It's more than just semantics; it's about understanding, empathy, and respect. and the question is Do the Words Matter? Let's dig deep in The Language We Use for Mental Health

On this Blog:


The Power of Words in Shaping Perceptions

You know how sometimes a single word can either lift you up or bring you down? That's the power of language, especially in the context of mental health. When we use stigmatizing language, we're not just talking about a condition; we're shaping how society views it. Think about it: calling someone "a depressive" versus "a person with depression" can have vastly different impacts on how we perceive and treat them.

The folks at Mind in Harrow highlight how our choice of words can either perpetuate harmful stereotypes or help reduce stigma and promote positive change​​. It's about acknowledging the humanity of those facing mental health challenges and creating a more inclusive and understanding environment.


Stigma and Its Impact on Treatment

Did you know that a whopping 35% of people with serious mental illness in the U.S., and nearly 90% of people with substance use disorders, don't receive the treatment they need? A big reason behind this is stigma. Research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that stigma not only affects how people are treated in healthcare settings but also how they view themselves. This "self-stigma" can lead to lower self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and can be a major hurdle in seeking treatment​​.


Language and Self-Perception

The words we use can deeply impact how we view ourselves. When we use degrading or derogatory terms to describe mental health issues, it can lead to people internalizing these negative labels. On the flip side, empowering language can transform self-perception, promoting self-compassion and reinforcing the idea that a person is not defined by their mental health condition​​.




Words Matter: How the Media’s Language Impacts Mental Health

In recent years, there's been a notable rise in media coverage of mental health. But here's the catch: the way it's talked about in articles, social media posts, and videos could really use some tweaking. The choice of words and the approach in reporting don't just shape public opinion (like fueling stigma and stereotypes); they directly touch the lives of those grappling with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts. Sloppy word choices and vague reporting can trivialize mental health issues, erecting roadblocks to care and hobbling efforts to push for substantial mental health policy reforms.

There's a real need for media outlets to reassess their policies and guidelines. Why? Because the stakes are high and climbing. In 2020, 3 out of 10 young adults faced a mental health condition – a staggering 42% jump since 2011. And here's the kicker: the demand for mental health support is skyrocketing, way beyond what our schools and communities can currently handle. Nearly half of all Americans will meet the criteria for a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in the U.S., yet only 40% of those affected receive treatment. We're at a critical point in our journey to destigmatize mental health conversations and interventions.

The media's portrayal of mental health carries hefty consequences. It can either hamper or hasten meaningful policy changes and affect how individuals with mental health conditions are treated in healthcare settings. For instance, research indicates that stigma-related biases can limit access to care and lead to negative outcomes.

Moreover, media's disproportionate focus on violent and shocking acts by individuals with mental health issues (think mass shootings) leads to a skewed association between mental illness and violence. Despite studies showing that severe mental illness is often linked to violence in the media, only 4% of interpersonal violence in the U.S. is actually related to mental illness. Yet, nearly 40% of news stories about mental illness tie it to violent behavior. What's often missed is that individuals with severe mental illness are actually more likely to be victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators.

Responsible reporting can, in fact, help prevent suicide. Covering suicide as a public health issue and sharing stories of hope, healing, and recovery can deter imitation. However, it's not just suicide that gets replicated following media reports. For example, there's often a spike in mass shootings after a highly publicized incident, with subsequent perpetrators modeling their actions on previous events.

In essence, the way the media talks about mental health and related issues can make a world of difference. It's high time for a shift in narrative – one that's informed, empathetic, and responsible. After all, the words we choose and the stories we tell can be powerful tools for change.


Language Matters: A Personal Take

Let's get personal for a sec. Imagine if someone close to you was going through a tough time mentally. How you talk about their experience can either make them feel supported and understood, or isolated and judged. That's why it's so vital to choose our words carefully, to show empathy and respect.

The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health suggests starting conversations about word preferences, respecting cultural impacts, and practicing inclusive communication. Remember, neither “person-first” nor “identity-first” language is always right or wrong. It's about understanding and respecting individual preferences​​.



In the grand scheme of things, changing how we talk about mental health might seem like a small step. But trust me, it's a giant leap towards building a more empathetic, understanding, and inclusive society.

Let's all do our bit in understanding the power of the language we use. After all, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”​​.

Reach Out to Grace Health Services

What's your take on this? Ever experienced a moment where the right (or wrong) words made all the difference? Share your thoughts, and let's keep this conversation


Let’s get you the care you deserve!

​Our certified providers at Grace Health Services in VA & D.C. are dedicated to understanding and treating a variety of mental health challenges. Drawing from both modern research and years of hands-on experience, we aim to provide nothing but the finest care from the moment of diagnosis.

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