Language Matters
/ Author: Jennifer Kennedy
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Language Matters

How we talk about mental health can help combat the stigma surrounding it

By Jennifer Kennedy, CLAC Representative

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training. Mental health is a topic that is near and dear to me. If asked ten years ago if I knew anyone affected by mental health, I probably would have said no. Today I would say, yes, absolutely!

There are many expressions used to describe mental health problems: mental disorder, mental illness, poor mental health, psychiatric illness, nervous breakdown, and burnout. Of course, there are many slang terms as well, which I will not list. These terms do not shed light on what is really happening with the person, however. Worse, most slang terms underpin negative attitudes that can be hurtful to people affected by mental health.

No two workplaces are the same and some can be especially difficult. Even if you consider yourself someone who is open and understanding, you may still be hanging on to negative feelings and attitudes about mental health—especially when they affect you directly.

What can you do to help? Listening nonjudgmentally to someone who wants to talk is a great start. Give them reassurance and help them find appropriate resources, like an employee assistance program.

The way we talk about mental health is critically important. Combating stigma starts with the language we use. That’s why we must all be conscious of the outdated, prejudicial language being used around us every day. We can all do our part to fight stigma by using accurate and respectful language.

Here are some examples I’ve learned:

Instead of saying substance abuse: say substance use or substance use disorder.

Instead of saying patient, client, or case: say person living with a mental health problem or illness.

Instead of saying committed suicide: say died by suicide.

Instead of saying failed suicide attempt: say attempted suicide.

Instead of saying a person is suffering from mental illness: say a person is living with (or experiencing) mental illness.

Instead of saying he/she is an addict/junkie: say he/she lives with a substance use problem (or disorder).

Instead of saying he/she is depressed: say he/she lives with depression.

We must all try to do better. We must choose our words with care. The way we talk about mental health and the things we express publicly through social media, in our homes, and in our workplaces, can make a difference.

If you or a loved one are in need of help, don’t sit in silence. Powered by Kids Help Phone, anyone in need—regardless of age—can text “Talk” to 686868 to speak to a trained crisis responder.

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