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The Stigmatizing Language that Harms Your Employees — and How to Change It

Choosing the right words can go a long way in de-stigmatizing mental health.

Written by Rachel Unger

The Stigmatizing Language that Harms Your Employees — and How to Change It

01 Our choice of words can have a major impact on others, especially when it comes to mental health.

02 We unintentionally perpetuate stigma and misinformation when we misuse language related to mental health.

03 By changing our language, we can directly improve the lives of those who live with mental health disorders.

“You may have noticed from my desk — I’m a little OCD.” 

“If I get assigned to that contract I’m going to kill myself.”

“Did you see the coffee machine stopped working? I thought I was going to have a panic attack.” 

Mental disorders are not adjectives, and yet we use them that way all the time. Someone’s ex-partner is “schizophrenic,” the jammed photocopier is being “bipolar,” the weather is “psycho.” The list goes on.

Language Matters

When we use words like “OCD” and “panic attack” for the sake of hyperbole, we risk ostracizing others who actually experience these conditions. People pick up on contextual clues and probably realize off-handed comments like these aren’t serious, but that’s part of the problem. 

Whether we intend to or not, we trivialize the experiences of those who live with these conditions by making light of them. Someone who overhears this kind of language can feel hurt, ashamed and even discouraged from seeking help — especially if they live with the condition that is the butt of the joke. It’s hard to feel that you’ll be taken seriously if you speak up when your experiences are reduced to a punchline. 

Our words hold power. They actively shape our understanding of mental health and impact the way we treat people who live with mental disorders. The way we talk about mental health impacts access to treatment, insurance coverage and even public policy. Stereotypes and misrepresentations in the media often reinforce stigma, contributing to negative attitudes about mental health conditions.

Research has shown that the more time people spend watching television, the more likely they were to have negative views of individuals with mental disorders.

Characters with mental disorders are commonly portrayed as violent and unpredictable, as victims or as incapable of keeping a job. In fact, research has shown that the more time people spend watching television, the more likely they were to have negative views of individuals with mental disorders. When people internalize negative messages about mental health, it can undermine their willingness to seek help or talk about what they’re going through. 

Using mental health terms out of context can downplay the seriousness of disorders and make it easier to brush them off as real concerns. In addition to being offensive, these words can leave a person feeling rejected and alone.

Negative Stereotypes & Stigma in Mental Health

Therapist Kati Morton talks about how negative stereotypes affect those of us who struggle as well as those of us who work in the field of mental health.

Changing the Narrative

Some of these terms are so embedded in our speech that it can be difficult to think of alternatives. But mental health-related terms shouldn’t be used indiscriminately to describe people or things. 

The coworker with a neat desk is super organized, not “OCD.” A situation may make you feel uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make it “triggering” or “give you PTSD.”   Don’t use “crazy,” “insane” and “deranged” to describe things that are irrational, extreme or unusual. Cutting these words out of our lexicon can go a long way in reducing stigma. Here’s a list of some commonly heard phrases — and what you can say instead.

  • Instead of depressed, say sad or devastated 
  • Instead of bipolar, say scattered, unpredictable or spontaneous 
  • Instead of crazy, nuts or deranged, say odd or bizarre
  • Instead of junkie or addict, say a person living with a substance use disorder 
  • Instead of OCD, say anal, meticulous or picky 
  • Instead of schizo or schizophrenic, say a person living with schizophrenia
  • Instead of ADHD or ADD, say distracted or unfocused
  • Instead of manic, say energized or frantic 
  • Instead of anorexic, say thin 
  • Instead of committed suicide, say died by suicide

Language and Schizophrenia/Schizoaffective Disorder

Mental health advocate Lauren discusses language surrounding schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder and mental health in general.

When broaching the topic of mental health at work, use person-first language. This means you shouldn’t refer to someone as their diagnosis first. Instead of saying someone is bipolar, say someone is living with or has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This subtle shift in language keeps us from labeling people by their conditions. 

We wouldn’t say “he is heart disease,” so why should we say “he is bipolar”? Living with bipolar disorder may impact someone’s life, but it doesn’t define them. Don’t refer to those without a diagnosed condition as normal and those with one as not normal. 

It can be hard to know what to say when you hear someone using stigmatizing language. There can be power dynamics at play that may make you question the usefulness of calling someone out, especially if they’re your superior. If you hear something offensive and decide to speak up, one way to handle it would be to say, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to come across this way, but it was offensive when you said “______.” Naturally, each situation is different, but your coworker will hopefully apologize, and the conversation can move on. 

How Managers Can Help

Having open conversations about mental health is only beneficial if we are speaking with respect and empathy. Otherwise, they can do more harm than good. If someone speaks up about their mental health and feels alienated by the response, it only discourages them from future conversations. That’s why it’s so important to model positive word use and promote the use of non-stigmatizing language. 

By using informed language, managers can help in increasing awareness and creating positive attitude shifts in the workplace. People who live with mental health conditions have vastly different symptoms and experiences, and you never know what someone is going through. Swapping out the words mentioned above can go a long way in de-stigmatizing mental health. 

About the author

Rachel Unger is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She's passionate about raising mental health awareness and promoting fairness in the workplace.

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