“I’m practically an alcoholic.” “Kill me.” “I’m so OCD.”
People say these phrases without thinking. But these words are potentially harmful for those with mental health disorders and those struggling with addiction.
“They oversimplify, and in many cases are inaccurate reflections of, the experience of these types of problems,” Sarah Victor, an assistant professor in the department of psychological sciences at Texas Tech University, says. “For example, ‘I am so OCD’ is often used to refer to someone being picky about details, neatness, or organization. However, there are many different kinds of OCD, not all of which relate to organization or cleanliness.”
Experts explain why it may be a good idea to be more careful about your language regarding mental health, how to curb these habits and what the future could look like as language evolves. Above all: Words have consequences.
“Many people already feel ashamed about living with mental illness or other problems, and these terms can exacerbate that,” Victor adds.
Important read: Am I OK? How to do a mental health check
It’s time we stop saying…
- ‘I’m being OCD’: Unless you actually have obsessive compulsive disorder, it’s best not to use this colloquially.
- ‘I’m so ADHD/ADD’: Same goes for using ADD and ADHD as a way to describe a difficulty focusing.
- ‘Schizo’: Schizophrenia “a serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
- ‘Kill me,’ ‘I’m going to kill myself’: In 2019, 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned an attempt, and 1.4 million actually attempted, according to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention. It’s not something to say lightly.
- ‘Bipolar’: Bipolar disorder “causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. There are three types of the condition: Bipolar I, Bipolar II and Cyclothymia – none of which are casual.
“Use of (these) terms in this way can feel minimizing to individuals who have mental health conditions,” says Melissa Baese-Berk, a faculty scholar in the department of linguistics at the University of Oregon. Someone could be picky or fastidious and be referred to as “OCD,” for example, or someone easily distracted be referred to as “ADD.”
“When someone says ‘kill me’ in response to a minor problem, when they’re not actually suicidal, it implies that wanting to kill oneself is something to be blasé about, that it’s no big deal,” Victor says. “However, the experience of suicidal thoughts and urges is often extremely painful and distressing for people.”
The same can be said for people with addiction.
These types of words and phrases trivialize the reality of these problems. (Photo: Getty)
“There is a lot of evidence that words like ‘junkie,’ ‘addict,’ or ‘alcoholic’ stigmatize people who use substances,” Ty S. Schepis, a professor in the department of psychology at Texas State University, says. “It may make them less likely to seek treatment, which is something we want to avoid. Ultimately, I think we all want to help these people enter treatment and stop using substances.”
Schepis says he is always uncomfortable reducing a person to a single characteristic. “People are much more complex than just substance use, and it is very limiting to just think about that,” he says.
Baese-Berk says that “when you notice you’re using a word that you’d rather not use, think about alternatives that might actually be more specific or descriptive.”
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As more people are being open about their mental health experiences, Victor expects we will see “changes in what’s acceptable or OK to say.”
Schepis points out that the “r-word,” a slur for someone with developmental challenges, is “not out of everyone’s vocabulary, it is used much less often than it used to be.”
Baese-Berk adds: “We have seen other marginalized communities effectively shift language use such that some words are much more taboo now than they were in the past. We’ve also seen some communities reclaim words or phrases that were once taboo or hurtful.” Think the LGBTQ community’s renewed use of the word “queer” or members of the autism community describing themselves as “autistic.”
How to tell someone they’re wrong
While a person might get defensive when you call them out, having a conversation could prove helpful.
There’s not one right answer. “It can be valuable to speak frankly and nonjudgmentally to the person who made the comment to explain to them why it was inappropriate,” Victor says.
“By speaking from the assumption that the person doesn’t know better, rather than assuming that they intend to be hurtful, you’re less likely to find the person getting defensive,” she says.
Consider sending resources. If someone routinely uses an offensive phrase, explain why it is offensive, Baese-Berk says, and send the person to a list of resources. She recommends the Ableist Glossary maintained by Lydia X. Z. Brown.
Don’t put the burden on the affected individual. Schepis is wary of putting the responsibility on those who deal with these issues to defend themselves.
“Frankly, they have enough to deal with already, and I think the onus is on people like myself – researchers and clinicians who work with these groups – to make this case,” he says.
That feeling you can’t name? It’s called emotional exhaustion.
How eliminate offensive language from your lexicon
Think before you speak — and type. “I try to think about whether I would feel comfortable saying what I’m about to say in front of someone who has struggled with that issue, or who has a close family member or friend who has struggled,” Victor says.
Assume someone in the room might be affected. “We do not always know whether people around us have had those experiences,” Victor says, so it’s better to assume someone might care than not.
Be open to correction. When she teaches or works with clients, Victor often says: “If I say something that upsets you or bothers you, please let me know! It may be that I misspoke, or was not clear, or simply that I’ve said something hurtful, and in any of those situations, I would like to know so that I can do better.”
Listen to your gut, literally: Your body is trying to tell you something
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.
Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
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