Why language matters when it comes to mental health

Changing the way we talk to each other about mental illness and distress is crucial to ending the stigma


It is important to choose our words carefully so as not to further isolate people struggling with their mental health (Photo: supplied by Jewish Care)

May 16, 2024 12:14

Language is powerful. In the wrong hands, it is a weapon. In the right hands, it has the potential to be a catalyst for positive change.

Recently, casual references to mental illnesses and distress have found their way into our conversations. For example, “My teacher’s so bipolar” or “I’m a bit OCD”. Using these terms as adjectives trivialises what can be a daily struggle for people living with mental illness.

In the 1970s and 1980s, offensive words leapt from newspaper headlines, linking mental illness and violent crime. In the school playground we also grew up with pejorative language about mental illness. The use of this kind of language colluded with the idea that people with mental illness and distress are not like us.

Unfortunately, stigmatised language about mental illness can still be heard in schools, universities and the workplace. Although we know that name-calling, shaming and taunting is now considered verbally abusive, it sticks with us. If we’re honest with ourselves, these words might pop into our heads when we hear about others struggling. If we or a close family member is living with mental illness and distress, we might even turn the same offensive wording on ourselves in frustration and pain. The effect is damaging to our self-image, fuelling a downward spiral and increasing our isolation at a time when we need more support than ever.

However, it is important to remind ourselves that these narratives were born from ignorance.

Today, we know that one in four of us can be affected by a mental illness at any time in our lives. Sometimes, it is us; sometimes, it is someone else. Life events, past traumas, painful losses or transitions can all tip the scale on our mental health.

Our language and choices for communication go to the root of how we see ourselves and others. Changing the way we talk to each other about mental illness and distress is crucial to ending the stigma.

In 2024, it is still hugely challenging to live with a mental illness as we navigate treatment and support. Mental illnesses are debilitating, often long-term conditions that many of us work hard to manage. Being on long waiting lists only increases stress for those already struggling with their mental health. The last thing we need to hear is others belittling a condition or pressurising us with unrealistic comments about hopes for a speedy recovery, when recovery in mental illness can be the Mount Everest of a person’s life.

So, what can we do? If language is power, we can become advocates for those of us affected by mental illness and distress by kindly, but firmly, redirecting these stigmatising comments when we hear them. We can share the idea that by using shaming language, we are further isolating people and their families, who are living with mental illness and distress, and this can set someone back on their journey to recovery or, indeed, trigger their decline.

Becoming more thoughtful and aware of language about mental illness and distress helps us to create a more compassionate Jewish community and a kinder society. That must be a worthwhile reward to rising for the challenge of speaking up.

If you would like to do more to change the way we understand mental illness and distress, why not consider enrolling your community group or organisation on a Jewish Care and Jami Mental Health First Aid course? You’ll be better equipped to help us create lasting change for those of us going through mental illness.

If you need support or are supporting someone who needs help, click here or contact 020 8458 2223.

If you’re struggling to cope or need immediate help, contact Shout’s 24/7 crisis text service. Text Jami to 85258 for free, confidential support.

​Philippa Carr is senior mental health education and suicide prevention manager at Jami, part of Jewish Care

May 16, 2024 12:14

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