April 17, 2016

Language and Mental Health


Terms like "successful suicide" are common, but they create the wrong climate for addressing mental health.

Photo Courtesy of Mecklenburg County

“Commit suicide,” “successful suicide,” “the mentally ill,” “suffering from a mental illness” —These phrases rattle off the tongue, yet we, as social justice advocates, find they rattle our souls as people continue to use them in well-meaning workplace education programs and community discussions. Let us explain…

In 1984, George Orwell said, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The above phrases are commonly used inside and outside the mental health sector and, because of this common usage, they are accepted. We suggest that they corrupt the thinking of those who speak them and those who hear them. We would like to change this.

What if being more mindful of our language could release new ways of thinking that eventually open up new opportunities for creative ideas, thoughtful approaches and ultimately true social inclusion? What if we make a conscious effort to find words that more accurately reflect the experience of mental health conditions and suicide — would we be better able to have empathy, support and inclusion in our workplaces and communities through the use of more skillful language? We argue: Yes.

Neurolinguistics tells us the words we use as we speak inform the way our brains store and process information about whatever it is we are talking about. Words carry current meanings and history of meaning. Many words are associated with inaccurate and unfair messages that serve to perpetuate misunderstanding and prejudice. The labels applied by clinicians to people who have mental health challenges create assumptions, expectations and interpretations that can set misperceived limits on how much growth and performance is possible, while also creating the means for social exclusion. We believe this process is often unconscious and has an insidious effect on our collective thoughts and feelings, especially regarding marginalized groups, such as people who live with suicidal experiences and mental health conditions.

See Also: Breaking the Silence on Mental Health

We are hard-wired to remember problems, especially when we perceive these problems to be dangerous. So, using language that is negative, connotes difference and insinuates a threat tends to be very “sticky.” To undo this, we need to spend extra effort to build a vocabulary that is life-affirming, dignified and inclusive. Paying attention to our language as we talk about mental health and suicide, while constantly working toward improving our language, will help create a workplace culture of compassion, vitality and engagement.

Stigma reduction campaigns and workplace mental health trainings that do not pay careful attention to language are limiting their impact and may be the reason why, even after many years, we are not much further ahead in terms of reducing stigma in the workplace.

Language is the most powerful tool in understanding each other. In any social movement, language must be addressed. How we speak about people informs us about them, so when we speak unconsciously, without attention to bias and misperception, we are perpetuating social prejudice and damage. By changing our language, we alter our perceptions and attitudes; this is social justice.

In a sequel to this blogpost, we will explore the history, impact and alternatives of specific words that are often used when talking about suicide and mental health.


About the Author

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a battle with bipolar condition.

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About the Author

Donna Hardaker is the director of Wellness Works, a groundbreaking workplace mental health training program of Mental Health America of California. Hardaker is a workplace mental health specialist and has been developing and delivering training and consulting services to organizations since 2003.

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