The Words You Use about Mental Health Matter

New Year's resolutions

It’s time to think about our New Year’s resolutions. Here’s one that can help others and yourself, and it’s a lot easier than getting organized or losing 20 pounds.

Use accurate language about mental health.

First, give up calling people “crazy” or any of the 99 synonyms for the word in the American slang dictionary when what you mean is something more like, “You don’t agree with me” or “You’re wearing stripes and plaids together.”

Here are some alternative words, if you really feel like you have to insult someone’s mental prowess:

  • illogical
  • unreasonable
  • behaving inappropriately
  • making unsubstantiated claims

If that’s not doing it for you, then you might just be dismissing someone’s sincere thoughts and feelings with a word that you know is inaccurate, belittling them by failing to consider their views, or giving yourself an excuse for not listening. A New Year’s resolution to get those habits out of your relationships could make a big difference.

Now that you’ve given up casually calling people “cray cray,” think about the way you talk about actual mental health issues. If you were sharing the news that your brother-in-law had cancer, you would not say, “He’s cancerous.” So don’t say, “He’s schizophrenic.” There is more to each of us than a diagnosis. “He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia” or “She has bipolar disorder” is more accurate and more respectful.

And while we’re at it, how about giving up armchair diagnoses? Next time you’re about to say that your ex’s new partner is “neurotic,” stop and make sure that you know exactly what that word means. Hint: it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the 20th century, so you can be fairly sure that it’s not an accurate diagnosis.

When we use inaccurate language to talk about mental health issues, we contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness, which in turn keeps people from seeking help. When we use that language to insult or argue with or dismiss people, we not only add to the stigma, but also trivialize mental health issues.

Let’s clean up our language for the new year.