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Mental Illness: Terms to Use & Terms to Avoid

Language shapes the world and how we view ourselves. How we describe ourselves, others, and the world matters.

When language is used in a constructive way, it can have a profound impact. When it comes to mental illness, mental health, and well-being, negative words can feel isolating and perpetuate stigmatization. Positive words can help communicate empathy, hope, and understanding.

Here are 3 examples of terms to avoid, what you should use instead, and why it’s important.

Avoid “normal behavior”

Use “typical” or “usual” behavior

What is normal anyway? There is no clear definition of normal behavior, but each individual person has their own usual behavior. You know your loved ones best. If their usual behavior has changed, don’t be afraid to talk to them.

Avoid “mentally ill person” Use “person with a mental illness” or “person living with a mental health issue”

People aren’t their disease. Putting the disease first implies that the person does not have an identity beyond the illness. That’s why it is important to accept someone as a person first* and honor the many parts of them outside of their diagnosis.

For example, instead of saying someone is a cancer patient, the language should be “this person has breast cancer”. This also applies to people who live with a mental illness or a substance use disorder.

*This is called person-first language which acknowledges the person first, then the condition or disability.

Avoid “suffers from mental illness”, “affected by mental illness”, or “victim of mental illness” Use “living with mental illness”

Using a word like “suffering” implies someone is unwell or unhappy. Mental illnesses are not a sign of weakness; people living with them can live fulfilling, healthy lives.

Think about it in terms of diabetes or asthma. You wouldn’t say someone is a “victim of asthma” or “suffering from diabetes”. A mental health condition should not be perceived more negatively than a physical health condition.

We can all destigmatize mental health with the words we use. It may feel like a small thing, but changing how we talk about mental health issues helps validate people’s experiences with mental health while fostering understanding and respect. Let’s all make a difference with the words we use.


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