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The Importance of Language

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is quite possibly my least favorite saying because it's wrong. Words can hurt. Words can kill.

In January of 2019, someone used my mental health as the basis for questioning my abilities as a leader. This is when I learned just how deadly words can be to someone. This single act took me through almost eight months of hell. It’s one of the hardest things I have gone through and it led me to being diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It also almost resulted in my death, as I had my second suicide attempt in July of the same year. Words nearly killed me.

As I began working to raise awareness and advocate for those with mental health issues and mental diseases, it made me realize the way we talk about mental health is of the utmost importance. The words we use are important because to face stigma and prove it wrong, we must make sure the language we use isn't perpetrating the exact stigma we want to get rid of.

I went on a mission to learn everything I can about the language we use when we are talking about mental health issues or mental diseases. I have had conversations with those with first-person experiences and those who are caregivers. I have read all types of information. This is what I have come up with so far:

Mental health or wellness: Everyone with a brain has mental health or wellness. Everyone will struggle with their mental wellbeing from time to time, but not everyone will get to a point where they will be diagnosed with a mental disease. This is important because mental health and mental disease are separate things.

Mental disease (or if you prefer illness): I am not against using illness, however, as I see it, I am not sick like when you have a cold or some other infection. I am simply dealing with an organ in my body not functioning normally, as intended medically. When your pancreas stops working, you have diabetes. When your heart starts to malfunction, you have high blood pressure or other heart related issues. When you think ‘illness’ many times people relate this to something you can pass on or ‘catch’. You cannot pass on mental diseases. You cannot ‘catch’ a mental disease. Something within your brain causes a malfunction or the hormones are not being regulated correctly and this leads to a brain disease.

Died by Suicide: This is the proper way to say someone has died when the cause is suicide. “Committed” suicide is the incorrect way to say this. If someone has died by suicide, they have not committed a crime like it had been viewed in the past. By saying someone has committed suicide, it degrades the human life which was just lost. Mental diseases kill people and the cause of death is suicide.

Person first language: Instead of calling someone a label or stereotype, identify them as a person first and then identify the disease, if it’s necessary. If diagnosis adds no value, then there is no necessity to label them with it.

Incorrect: Schizophrenic

Better: A person with schizophrenia

Incorrect: Alcoholic

Better: An individual who abuses alcohol

As with everything else in life, this is always changing and being improved. The more I talk with others, the more I learn. The more I learn then the more I grow.

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