Challenging stigma: A guide on language around mental health

At The National Lottery Community Fund we are committed to telling the stories of diverse communities in a way that is dignified and respectful. For Mental Health Awareness Week, our Disability Staff Network developed the following article for our internal comms on stigmatising language around Mental Health. 

Our staff have found it useful and challenging – so we decided to share the guide externally too, and hopefully inspire people to challenge their language around mental health. 

TW: Contains potentially stigmatising/offensive language about mental health 

scrabble letters saying mental health
Mental health advocacy has come a long way but unfortunately many people still use words that further the stigma around mental ill health. 
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of words and phrases which may be stigmatising towards mental ill health: 

Insane/Lunatic/Unhinged/Disturbed: These terms were used to reinforce negative stereotypes of those with mental health issues, furthering the stigma that ‘people with mental health conditions are to be feared’. 

Using ‘unwell’ as an insult: 

For example, saying someone you don’t like the behaviour of on a reality show is ‘unwell’ ‘not right’ ‘not right in the head’. Think about what this implies about people with mental illnesses. 

Sanity check: 

Instead of using this phrase, which implies that you need to check something is ‘sane’ – try using ‘sense check’. 

Using mental illnesses as an insult: e.g. Schizo/Bipolar/Psychotic/Anorexic 

Ill mental health isn’t a laughing matter, and these insults reinforce a negative and inaccurate perception of mental health conditions. 

Using illnesses as a means of description: e.g. ‘I’m so OCD’ 

This trivializes the complexities of mental health issues and spreads stigma and misinformation. 

Hospital stigma: ‘There’s a place for people who talk to themselves’, ‘they need locked up’, ‘The Looney Bin’ 

People go to hospitals to receive treatment so that they can get better. People with conditions that require hospital treatment are just human beings who need support, they’re not villains. Also, speaking of hospitals in this way can create a barrier for those accessing treatment because of that stigma. 

‘Suffers from’ / ‘Mentally ill person’: 

Using ‘suffer’ when referring to someone with a mental health condition applies negative connotations to mental illness which can cause people to struggle to accept help for their condition or accept their diagnosis. 

Instead of saying ‘suffers from’ or referring to someone as ‘mentally ill’, say someone ‘has a mental illness’, ‘is affected by mental ill health’ or ‘lives with a mental illness’. Likewise, you should say ‘she has bipolar’, not ‘she is bipolar’. Mental ill health does not define someone’s identity. 

Talking about suicide with consideration: 

Suicide is a tragedy, which requires great care when discussing it. Avoid using terminology like ‘commit suicide’ and ‘off themselves’, and instead say ‘died of suicide’. Also, instead of saying ‘unsuccessful suicide’, you would say ‘suicide attempt’. A lot of the language around suicide has crime connotations, so let’s be more supportive to those affected by suicide by avoiding those words and phrases. 

When sharing external communications about suicide, avoid exaggerating stories, romanticising with language like ‘tortured’ and ‘cocktail of drugs’, and sharing details of suicide attempts. Stick to the facts as there is a clear link between the reporting of suicides and suicide attempts, and we have a responsibility to make sure our communications cause no harm to others. 

Note: Trigger warnings 

When discussing something that may be triggering for someone with a mental health condition, for example eating disorders, trauma, self-harm, suicide, baby loss and addiction – put a trigger warning before the content so people have a choice to stop reading or viewing. 

The only way we can eradicate stigmatising language is by doing our best and educating others. Nobody is perfect, and many of these words and phrases we have a habit of using without understanding the damage – but there’s always time to change our ways. 

Want to read more? Here are some valuable resources which helped us pull together our guide: 

Support in Mind Scotland’s ‘Language matters’:  

Time To Change’s ‘Mind your language’: 

The Mental Health Foundation’s: ‘Why the language we use to describe mental health matters’  

The suicide reporting toolkit:  

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Check out @TNLComFundScot’s guide on stigmatising language around mental health…

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