Mental health challenges can impact everyone. Even if you have not been personally affected, you likely know someone who has – whether it is a family member, friend, or an individual you support as a behavioral healthcare provider. Mental illness is defined as mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders, and can vary in range from no impairment to mild, moderate, and severe mental illness.1 According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2020, nearly one in five adults (approximately 52.9 million people) in the U.S. was living with a mental illness. For children ages 3 to 17, anxiety grew by 27% and depression increased to 29%.2
Stigma and stigmatizing language are often associated with these conditions and can have a significant impact on the short- and long-term success of an individual in overcoming a mental health challenge. Stigmatizing language assigns negative labels, stereotypes, and judgment to certain groups of people. This, in turn, can contribute to negative outcomes, such as social isolation and reduced self-esteem, as well as a decreased likelihood to seek medical help.3
To overcome stigmatizing language, family members, friends and treating providers who are supporting the child or adult with the mental health condition, need to model appropriate, strength-based language when referring to the condition or the individual.
“No one would ever say that someone with a broken arm or a broken leg is less than a whole person, but people say that or imply that all the time about people with mental illness.” – Elyn R. Saks, professor, lawyer, and psychiatrist4
Accepting a Loved One’s Condition
Since 2020, there have been additional stressors contributing to mental health challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation, caregiver burden, virtual school, economic and housing instability, healthcare workforce shortages and political unrest. This has resulted in an increased demand for mental and psychological healthcare, requiring an even greater need for family members, friends and treating providers to speak in a destigmatizing way.
Acknowledging and accepting your loved one’s mental health condition may be challenging, depending on your cultural values, predisposed opinions and biases about mental illness. From a family perspective, it is critical to demonstrate love, acceptance and non-judgement when speaking with, or about, your child or adult. Small adjustments, such as removing the word “crazy” from your everyday vocabulary, can make a difference. Speak in a strength-based, person-centered way. Rather than saying, “Joey is crazy” or “Joey is bipolar,” it is preferred to say, “Joey has bipolar disorder.” Understanding and discussing a mental health diagnosis, as you would a physical health diagnosis, is vital to normalizing the condition and preventing feelings of shame and self-doubt. Learn how to empathize with your family member who is affected. Use words or phrases to help them feel heard and understood, such as, “I can understand why you feel that way,” or “I’m sorry this has been so painful for you.” Avoid words and phrases that can reduce a person’s identity or imply the inability to recover or make improvements in their life, such as “drug addict” or “drug abuser.”
Destigmatizing Mental Health Counseling
Clinicians and other providers who offer treatment to those experiencing a mental health challenge also need to be aware of stigmatizing language. The most important action a provider can take to destigmatize mental health counseling in their role is to begin the conversation. Talk about mental health challenges, as well as grief, loss, trauma, and addiction. Discuss with the individual how you can help them work through these challenges.5
Language is essential to framing an issue. The issue of mental illness must be labeled by providers in a way that is supportive and humanizing. The care and treatment they offer is critical to an individual’s success, and language should be modeled for caregivers, family members and all related support systems. By eliminating stigmatizing language from the dialogue, providers promote the idea that the individual needs and deserves treatment.
When clinicians and other providers utilize destigmatizing, strength-based language, it ensures a more accurate representation of the mental health issues and the reality of the individual’s experience. In addition, it creates a common language to facilitate a comprehensive and realistic treatment plan. When initiating treatment, assess the person’s belief about seeking help. Provide a realistic view of the full treatment process, while acknowledging that counseling, therapy and/or treatment can be an intimidating concept.6
Use language that accurately reflects the experiences of the individual, as well as the greater social context that allows for the treatment necessary for leading a meaningful life7. As providers, we can continue to alleviate the stigma of seeking support by offering education, supplying factual information with the goal of correcting misinformation, and challenging negative attitudes and beliefs.8
Eliminating stigmatizing language associated with mental health conditions among family, friends and behavioral health care providers can help ensure individuals receive the care and support they need and take the first steps toward healing.
About Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health
Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit organizations providing services, insight, and leadership in the evolving field of behavioral healthcare. Founded in 1912 by special education pioneer Helena Devereux, the organization operates a comprehensive network of clinical, therapeutic, educational, and employment programs and services that positively impact the lives of tens of thousands of children, adults – and their families – every year. Focused on clinical advances emerging from a new understanding of the brain, its unique approach combines evidence-based interventions with compassionate family engagement.
Devereux is a recognized partner for families, schools, and communities, serving many of our country’s most vulnerable populations in the areas of autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities, specialty mental health, education, and foster care. For more than a century, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health has been guided by a simple and enduring mission: To change lives by unlocking and nurturing human potential for people living with emotional, behavioral, or cognitive differences. Learn more: www.devereux.org.
Amy Kelly, MBA, MNM, is National Director of Family Engagement, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, and Emily Garten, LCSW, is Clinical Director at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Florida.
- www.in.gov/recovery/files/Stigma-AddictionLanguageGuide-v3.pdf, n.d.