Time to stop and swap them out with more empathetic vocab.
Sticks and stones may break bones. But words? They actually can be really harmful. Often, many of the words that people use as insults today actually stem from that describe (or used to describe) mental illnesses. In fact, some of the most commonly used insults have been used for so long that it’s easy to forget their true meaning. Using these words as either insults or exaggerations can actually further stigmatize mental illness.
To make it worse, you can even end up internalizing these negative thought patterns. For example, if you were struggling with anxiety, you might tell yourself that you are “crazy” or a “basket case.” This type of negative self-talk will only worsen your mental health.
20 Words That Stigmatize Mental Illness
It’s not about being “politically correct,” but being more aware of the language you use. You never know who is listening and what they’re going through at the moment. When they hear you describe their condition disparagingly, they may be even less likely to seek help. That’s why it’s worth the effort to expand your vocabulary when it comes to these misused words that stigmatize mental illness.
You can swap out the following words and phrases with something more specific, without being mean and bringing others down in the process.
Seemingly Innocent Adjectives
Let’s start with some of the most commonly used words that you may use innocently:
People often say certain events or experiences were “crazy,” “insane,” or “nuts.” It doesn’t take long to realize that these words historically come from describing people with mental illness. Worse, people have often used these words to disparage or dismiss people (such as women fighting for the right to vote). You might be using these words totally innocently, but more precise words might be “exciting,” “intense,” or “wild.”
Ditch These Insults
The following words are much more explicit and are often used as taunts. You rarely hear these in a positive light:
- Loony bin
Not only are these labels unkind, but they also stigmatize mental illness. Calling someone “disturbed” or “unstable” discounts real threats that people with mental illness suffer. Plus, it can cause any person to question their reality (and who their real friends are).
Words with a Negative Past
It’s not always clear how people used certain words in the past, as demonstrated by these two stigmatizing words:
People have historically used “spastic” to describe people with cerebral palsy or even Parkinson’s. As a result, it’s inappropriate to use it to describe someone who’s clumsy, excitable, or actually has a physical disability.
Then, there’s “hysterical.” In the past, husbands and male doctors would often describe women they were seeing as simply “hysterical” when they had health problems. This led to many female-specific medical problems being discounted, ignored, and under-diagnosed. Today, many people still use the word to dismiss and disparage passionate women. Learn more about the history of “hysteria” here.
That said, it’s no biggie to keep using “hysterical” to describe your favorite funny person.
Words That Mock Brain Differences
When it comes to stigmatizing words, these can be some of the worst:
By now, most people are aware it is unacceptable to call those with (or without) an intellectual disability the “R word.” That’s pretty settled by now. Then, there are people who are clinically brain dead after a massive trauma. It’s in poor taste at best, extremely harmful at worst, to use these words as an insult to any person’s intelligence—no matter their mental health.
Words Borrowed From Mental Diagnoses
Often, you may hear people jokingly describe themselves or others using these clinical diagnoses:
“Anorexic” gets thrown around as both an insult and a compliment, and either way, it’s damaging. It’s dangerous, perpetuates impossible beauty standards, and reinforces the incorrect assumption that someone’s body size correctly reflects their mental or physical health. Eating disorders are extremely serious and have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness.
As for the other words, you may hear people joke about these labels to exaggerate their personality traits. Having unpredictable or erratic moods is not the same as having bipolar disease or schizophrenia. Being meticulous and organized is not the same as having OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Being easily distracted or unfocused is not the same as having ADHD.
All of these conditions (including anorexia nervosa) can seriously impair a person’s quality of life. Intrusive thoughts, uncontrollable tremors, and mental distress can disrupt and derail a person’s ability to function to the best of their capabilities. It’s no surprise that all of these conditions increase someone’s risk of suicidal ideation.
Speaking of which…
Joking About Suicide
Don’t use suicide to exaggerate or joke about your frustration. Suicidal ideation is not to be taken lightly. As society gets better at helping people who are having suicidal ideation, it’s crucial that people avoid joking about it or causing “false alarms.” If you or a loved one are having intrusive thoughts about ending your life, reach out to your mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Yes, there’s a lot to learn, and you might not get everything right at first. Still, simply making this effort could be the difference between life or death. After all, stigma has long prevented many people from seeking the help they needed and deserved.
- When It Comes to Mental Illness, Words Matter. Birmingham, AL: UAB Medicine. (Accessed on June 15, 2021)
- Rose D, Thornicroft G, Pinfold V, Kassam A. 250 labels used to stigmatise people with mental illness. BMC Health Serv Res. 2007; 7: 97.
- Why the language we use to describe mental health matters. London, U.K.: Mental Health Foundation, 2019. (Accessed on June 15, 2021)
- Should We Discard the Term "High Functioning" in Autism? New York, N.Y.: Psychology Today, 2019. (Accessed on June 15, 2021)
- Inclusive Language for Talking About People With Intellectual Disabilities. Washington, D.C.: Special Olympics. (Accessed on June 15, 2021)
- Nash C MD, Hawkins A MD FRCPC, Kawchuk J MD FRCPC, Shea, SMD FRCPC. What’s in a name? Attitudes surrounding the use of the term ‘mental retardation’. Paediatr Child Health. 2012 Feb; 17(2): 71–74.