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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

With stigmatizing language, things can get pretty cloudy

This article is part of the Catalyst series called Language Matters.

“I hate this weather, it’s so bipolar. One minute it’s sunny and the next it’s raining. I never know how to dress in the morning.” I roll my eyes at my friend, and she apologizes. “I’m sorry. I forgot.” She’s not the first to use my diagnosis to describe something negative, and she won’t be the last, but it stings every time.

Adopting clinical terminology to emphasize our experiences happens all the time. How often have you heard someone say they’re OCD when they really mean they’re organized or respond to a new story with “That’s so crazy! That’s insane!”? We’ve all heard such things (or even said them ourselves). But just because something is familiar doesn’t make it OK. Using that kind of hyperbole reduces mental illness while doing a disservice to the people who live with those concerns. It also affects how we think about mental health conditions.

It’s called associative activation, and it happens when we unconsciously attach an emotion to an idea. Usually, the process is so quick that we’re not even aware we’re making a link. Yet our brains are hard at work producing a response to the words we use and hear. When my friend is talking about the weather, she’s also associating a negative emotion with bipolar disorder. It sounds innocent enough, but it has a lasting effect. And it’s one of the ways stigmatizing language is able to flourish.

So what’s the big deal? No need to be such a stickler. They’re just words.

Actually, those words do have a big impact on people. Think of a time when someone said something hurtful to you. How did it made you feel? For those living with mental health concerns, it can be disappointing to learn that someone you thought of as an ally has unconsciously held negative feelings about your condition. It can also be frustrating to hear your diagnosis being reduced for the sake of a quip or to exaggerate a point. Of course, anyone within earshot of that conversation about the weather is likewise forming their own negative views about bipolar disorder. What might their reaction be if they or someone they love is diagnosed a mental health condition?

Talking illustration

Language is constantly evolving as we understand more about mental health and strive to do better. While it can be difficult to keep track of shifting ideas around acceptable language, it’s certainly possible. A good place to start is to learn about stigmatizing language and some of the available alternatives.

Another thing to remember is to try not to get defensive if someone asks you to adjust your language. It probably just means they care enough to want to keep you from making the same mistake again. Many of us instinctively resist the idea of removing language from our vocabulary, but it does get easier with practice. And since choosing other words is one of the simplest ways that we can all help reduce mental health stigma, it’s worth the effort.

My friend and I put our umbrellas away. The sun was now peeking out from behind the clouds and warming our faces. “What I meant to say is that the weather is unpredictable these days. I should have worded it differently. I spoke without thinking. I’ll do better next time.” And for a long time now, that’s a promise she has kept.

Find other articles in the series: Person-first language.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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