How To Talk About Mental Health & Neurodiversity
Sep 21, 2023, 9 min read
Mental health and neurodiversity are talked about much more positively nowadays than in years gone by. Augmentive’s mission has always been to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to create a world where each person can live their life to the fullest. A big part of this is being present for the conversation around the language used when talking about mental health conditions and neurodiversity.
Here, we are looking at the history of mental health stigma, how it can make living with mental health conditions easier or more challenging, what to say, what not to say, and more. If you have questions about how to discuss mental health in any context, we’re here to help.
A history of mental health stigma
Throughout history there has been stigma in society when it comes to mental health issues. People who lived with conditions like autism, depression, schizophrenia and more were often treated as ‘less than’ neurotypical individuals or those without mental health conditions, and have been persecuted throughout history as a result. Help for mental health conditions barely existed in years gone by, and often medical information on the topic was ill informed and relied on harsh, inhumane so-called ‘treatments’.
Nowadays, attitudes towards neurodiversity and people living with mental health conditions are much more inclusive, and treatments have come on leaps and bounds. That said, stigma does still exist for many; a 2009 survey found nearly 50% of people with schizophrenia reported discrimination in their personal relationships, and up to two thirds of respondents anticipated discrimination when applying for jobs or pursuing relationships.
While improvements have been made when it comes to acknowledging and supporting those with mental health conditions in daily life, there is still much room for growth.
Why language is so important when discussing mental health
Just as attitudes and treatment options have evolved over the years, so has our use of language when discussing mental health and neurodiversity.
While we, and society as a whole, can never be sensitive to absolutely everyone’s opinions on mental health, we strive to be as tactful, informed and compassionate as possible so everyone – no matter their health situation – feels heard, seen and supported.
In order to remove stigma from a subject, we must normalise it by talking openly about it, and we do this as much as we can here on the Augmentive blog and beyond.
What to say (and what not to say)
There is often hesitation when talking about mental health: What do you say? When do you say it? Who can you say it to? Should you say it at all? It is normal to be dubious when discussing anything to do with mental health, as it can be a very sensitive subject for some, and any well-meaning person will want to avoid offending or upsetting anyone.
The below glossary of terms can provide some updated ways of talking about mental health, and encourage you to think about the most sensitive way to bring up other terms in future:
Outdated language: "commit suicide"
Instead: use terms like die by suicide, attempt suicide, or take one's own life
Why? The word “commit” implies suicide is a criminal act, which has negative connotations for grieving loved ones.
Outdated language: describing someone as "special needs"
Instead: Give a description of the specific needs a person has, or just say “disabled”.
Why? “Special needs” is a euphemism for the more commonly accepted “disabled”, and using a euphemism implies there is something shameful or embarrassing about saying someone is disabled.
Outdated language: words like “crazy”, “psycho” or “mental” used in a derogatory way
Instead: If someone has a real mental health condition, you should always refer to it by its official name. If not, avoid using words like these to describe someone’s negative personality traits.
Why? The word “crazy”, for example, is said to have originated in the 1570s and was used to mean ‘diseased’ or ‘sickly’. Over the years it evolved to mean ‘broken’, ‘impaired’, ‘deranged’, ‘demented’, or ‘unsound mind’, all of which are charged with negativity and could imply someone has a mental health condition when they do not. Using words like “crazy” further perpetuates stigma against people with legitimate mental health conditions, and undermines the seriousness of those conditions.
Outdated language: “normal”
Instead: use terms like "usual" or "typical"
Why? There is no such thing as “normal”, and using this term may alienate people who do not perfectly fit what larger society would describe as the norm. In a mental health context, “normal” does not exist, since there is no definition of a perfectly mentally healthy person. Everyone deals with their own challenges.
Outdated language: “suffer from”
Instead: use phrases like "living with" or "experiencing"
Why? Some do not consider – or do not like to think of – their mental health condition as something that causes them suffering. Instead they prefer to use phrasing that indicates it is just something that they live with.
Outdated language: “at risk of …” [condition]
Instead: “increased likelihood of…” [condition] or “increased chance of…” [condition]
Why? “Risk” is another word that implies having a certain condition would be a negative thing. For example, someone being “at risk of autism” would imply that having autism is something to be scared of. Instead, phrases like “increased likelihood of autism” say the same thing, but remove any negative stigma, making it more inclusive.
Outdated language: “Schizophrenic”, “Self-harmer”, “Bipolar”, etc.
Instead: use simple terminology such as “a person living with schizophrenia”, “a person who self-harms”, or “a person living with bipolar disorder”.
Why? Labelling people as their condition implies this is their identity, but many people prefer to separate themselves from the condition by acknowledging they are a person first who happens to live with a mental health condition. The one exception to this rule is autistic people, who generally prefer the term “autistic people” or “on the autism spectrum” over “a person with autism”. This is because many autistic people think of autism as a part of who they are, rather than a separate condition.
Outdated language: “a little OCD” or “a bit of ADHD”
Instead: avoid using conditions like OCD and ADHD as ways to describe someone’s personality. Just describe challenges such as "they like things a certain way" or "they can have difficulty concentrating."
Why? Having a tidy or clean personality is different from being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and being disorganised or fidgety is different from being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, so avoid using these conditions as words to describe someone’s traits.
Outdated language: “depressed” to describe being sad
Instead: use terms like “sad,” “a bit down,” or “feeling blue”
Why? The word “depressed” is regularly used in place of milder words like “sad” or “blue”. Everyone experiences bouts of sadness, but depression tends to be more intense and longer lasting than general low mood.
Outdated language: “I’m going to kill myself” when stressed or frustrated
Instead: Use phrases like “This is frustrating” or “I need a break from this” or “I need help with this”
Why? Some people claim to want to “kill themselves” during stressful or frustrating moments, or may use the phrase in a comedic way. For anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide or may be having suicidal thoughts themselves, this phrase can be triggering, so it is best to avoid saying it altogether.
What mental health looks like from the outside
There is an antiquated picture of what mental health issues look like; it might be someone with their head down and frowning, or it might be a person rocking back and forth in a mental health facility. Similarly, positive mental health tends to be portrayed as someone smiling broadly, taking part in social activities or keeping up with positive habits that supposedly equal great mental health, like regular meditation.
With the reduction of mental health stigma in recent years, there has been an increase in awareness of the many different faces of mental health issues. For example, someone who appears to be stressed at work and unhappy may be managing fine, while someone who appears to be the life of every party and achieving a lot of success in life could be deeply unhappy under the surface. Everyone has a unique relationship with their mental health, and what is true for one person may not be true for another. Also, what is true for you today may not be true for you in a month’s time; we are always changing.
It can be difficult to know what to say when it comes to mental health, if anything at all, but understanding that everyone is different, everyone struggles sometimes, and everyone can benefit from kindness and compassion, can help you feel better about approaching mental health subjects. This may need to come in a different form for each person, but at the end of the day, kindness and compassion is the goal.
How to talk about mental health with someone you are worried about
If you are worried about a loved one who hasn’t been acting like themselves recently, asking how they are is important. If they seem more irritable than usual, more distracted, or generally less positive, it may be worth bringing it up with them to ensure it is only a passing phase and not something more serious.
The aim is to provide them with a comfortable, open, calming environment where they can talk to you as much or as little as they need to. Here are a few tips that could help:
- Depending on the severity of the changes in the person you are addressing, you may want to choose either a quiet, private space to bring up the topic, or keep things casual by inviting them on a walk or to a cafe. Think about the likes and preferences of the person you are going to be speaking to.
- Make sure you are giving them your undivided attention by ensuring you don’t have anything to rush off to afterwards, turning off your phone, and choosing a place where you won’t be interrupted.
- Let them talk as much as they like, but don’t push them to speak more. You can ask questions to clarify what they mean and encourage them to elaborate on their feelings, but make it clear they don’t have to open up if they don’t want to.
- Ask them how they would like to get help, and how they would like you to support them. Whether it’s helping around the house, booking a GP appointment, or just checking in regularly to offer support, let them tell you what they need from you.
You may be interested in reading: 5 Tips On How To Support Someone With Anxiety
How to talk about your mental health with someone you trust
If you yourself are struggling with a mental health concern at the moment or you have recently been given a diagnosis, you may be looking to discuss this with someone you trust in order to share your worries or ask for support.
There are lots of services available and avenues to go down when it comes to support for mental health issues, but many people prefer to discuss the topic with a loved one first. If this is you, here are a few things that could help:
- Establish what you would like from the conversation: Do you want them to suggest solutions? Or do you only want them to listen? It may be helpful for both of you to let them know what you need from them before you begin.
- Think about what you want to say before you start talking. It can be helpful to rehearse the points you want to bring up, or even write them down as bullet points so you know which direction you want the conversation to go in. You could start with something like "I've been feeling a little off recently".
- Decide how you would prefer to bring up the topic. This could be an in-person chat, on the phone, or in a written letter where you can consider your words carefully.
- Decide the best time and place to broach the subject. You may prefer to go somewhere away from your usual environment, somewhere quiet, or somewhere you won’t be interrupted.
- Give examples of how your feelings are negatively impacting your life, as this can help them to understand the depth of the situation. Keep in mind that you can have negative mental health without this affecting your daily life at all, and this is still valid.
- Understand that the conversation may be the first of many. You might feel better after opening up to someone, especially if they are particularly receptive to your feelings, or it could take longer to start feeling better or to fully explain your feelings.
If you are unsure of how to approach the subject of mental health, or you feel you have been struggling with your mental health lately or in the past, our free initial 15 minute consultation can point you in the right direction for what to do next, and pair you with a therapist who can offer the best form of support for your specific situation.
If you have a question about mental health, like wondering what's the point of life, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.
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