With One Simple Change, Anyone Can Show Respect to People With Mental Illness

ByMegan Pauly

Language matters, and talking about mental illness is no exception. "The mentally ill" is a common phrase in media, but since the late 1990s, the largest grassroots mental health organization in the country has chosen less stigmatizing language that separates the individual from their illness: "individuals living with mental illness."

In 1997, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill changed its name to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as an example to others of putting people first, not their illnesses. Language is an important part of awareness, NAMI national communications director Katrina Gay told Mic

"[Mental health] is a field that is constantly evolving as our culture evolves and changes," Gay said. "It's very organic."

NAMI's decision to change its name was part of what Gay describes as more of a societal, cultural movement. However, it wasn't until 2013 that the AP Stylebook added rules about the language of mental illness that news organizations — among the most prominent and influential vectors of language and media for most people on a daily basis — were put on notice to do the same. The rules state that mental illness is a general condition, and specific disorders should be used whenever possible. The rules also state:

"Avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as affiliated with, suffers from or victim of. Rather, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder." 

Despite the 2013 additions, media outlets have been slow to adopt them. Gay said she hasn't used the word "suffer" in NAMI's newsmagazine the Advocate for 10 years and hasn't seen any real reduction in the term elsewhere in recent years. "We're using the word 'struggle' over 'suffer' because suffering is something that's imposed on you and struggle is an overcome-able obstacle," Gay said. 

She hopes with the rise of new social media platforms and more communications tools, stigmas associated with mental illness will fade, she told Mic.

Another common phrase NAMI is trying to change is replacing "committed suicide" with "died by suicide." "Committed suicide" makes one's death seem like a crime. In reality, suicide occurs most often as the result of untreated or increasingly severe and unmanageable symptoms of mental illness and is, many times, not a choice.

Language both reflects reality as well as shapes it, Stephen Hinshaw, psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Mic. It's a chicken or the egg question when talking about language and attitudes: Both need to change simultaneously. 

"We need to change fundamental attitudes and we need to hear the everyday tales of struggle and triumph that comprise the lives of people with mental illness," Hinshaw said. 

Stigmas shift: The battle against stigmatizing language with regard to physical illnesses like cancer was fought (successfully so) decades ago as the experience of living with cancer became a normal thing that wasn't considered scary anymore. 

Fifty or 60 years ago, people would refrain from using the word "cancer" in a family member's obituary because of the stigma associated with the illness at that time, Hinshaw said. Today, no one would describe "people with cancer" as "cancerous people."

"It was shameful because [people believed] you brought it on, you had a weak personality," he said. "[It was thought that] you probably gave up, and that's why the cancer cells overtook you. And today, even the NFL behemoth dudes are wearing pink every fall because breast cancer is a cause. We've turned the corner on acceptance. We're not even close to that for mental illness yet."