Talking about mental health

While we all have different ways of talking about our mental health, some words and phrases are more respectful and widely accepted than others. As more people talk about their mental health, the language we use about mental health is changing. This can have a positive impact on the stigma of mental ill-health.

How should I talk about mental health?

Most of us have experienced times when we’ve had trouble dealing with daily life. Many of us have been diagnosed with a mental health problem or felt that our mental health was poor. We all have our own ways to describe those experiences. It’s important that we choose the words we feel comfortable with – after all, our stories are ours to own and share.

When you’re speaking to someone about their mental health, it’s important to be direct and compassionate.

You should ask people whether they want to talk about their mental health, and if so how they would like to discuss their experiences. They are the experts in their lives.

It’s also important not to let fear about saying the wrong thing stop you having conversations about mental health or asking someone how they are. Avoiding the subject can make people feel silenced or stigmatised, even if that’s not what you intended.

Be careful when speaking about other people’s experiences – whether it’s someone you know or a person in the public eye or the news. It’s easy to gossip, but it’s usually unhelpful and can be harmful.

It’s good to be open about mental health and allow conversations to develop naturally. When choosing your words there are some terms which are helpful, and some which can reinforce stigma or cause upset.

Safe, open conversations will feel more considerate and respectful to most people with  lived experience of mental health problems. They can also help others feel more able to talk about their own experiences.

Phrases to use and avoid

Don’t: describe a person as a diagnosis or behaviour: ‘a manic-depressive’, ‘a schizophrenic’, ‘a psychotic’, ‘a self-harmer’

Instead: ‘a person living with schizophrenia/bipolar disorder’, ‘someone with depression’, ‘someone experiencing psychosis’, ‘someone who self-harms’. People tend to prefer terms where they’re seen firstly as a person rather than a set of symptoms or an illness, especially when some clinical terms are stigmatised.

Don’t: use ‘suffers from’, ‘victim of’

Instead: ‘lives with’, ‘has’. ‘Suffers from’ or ‘victim of’ implies someone’s life experience is negative, painful and hopeless – or that they are deserving of pity.

Don’t: use ‘mentally ill’

Instead: ‘someone with mental ill-health’ or ‘someone who experiences mental health problems’. ‘Mentally ill’ is old-fashioned and not precise – you wouldn’t usually say that a person was physically ill.

Don’t: use ‘committed suicide’

Instead: use ‘died by suicide’, ‘took their own life, or ‘attempted suicide’. The word ‘commit’ suggests suicide is a crime or a sin.

Samaritans has more about this in their media guidelines.

Don’t: use mental health terms as adjectives to describe people or behaviours – like ‘a bit OCD’, ‘crazy’, ‘practically anorexic’

Instead: use different, more compassionate ways to describe people or the ways they’re behaving. If you’re concerned that someone is behaving unusually, ask them how they’re doing in a sensitive way. If you see people making stigmatising comments or showing bias, call them out as you would if they were making other discriminatory comments.

There are words and phrases it’s preferable to use when talking about other topics, too. Our pages on LGBTIQ+ peopleBlack, Asian and minority ethnic communities and stigma and discrimination (which looks at disability) cover some of these.

Talking to someone you’re worried about

If a friend, relative or colleague doesn’t seem themselves, it’s good to check in and see how they are. You might have noticed they seem distracted, less able to concentrate, more angry or irritable than usual or that they’re hiding away.

  • Find a space where you know you can have a conversation without being distracted. This could be over a lunch break, during a walk or at a busy café depending on where the other person feels comfortable.
  • Give them your full attention: turn your phone off and make sure you won’t be interrupted.
  • Try to make eye contact unless the other person is uncomfortable with it. Be relaxed: it helps you come across as genuine and engaged with what they’re saying.
  • Ask questions to clarify and show you’re listening, but remember not everyone will want to discuss things in detail.
  • Ask how you can help or make suggestions, rather than telling them what to do next. They might want support with making a GP appointment, help with household chores, or just for you to keep things normal and chat about what’s going on in your life. Our page on getting help has lots of useful sources of help.

 

References:

House style guide | Mind

Inclusive language: words to use and avoid when writing about disability - GOV.UK

 

* Last updated: 20 January 2022