Six phrases that stigmatize suicide and mental illness
Are you unintentionally using stigmatizing language?
On National Suicide Prevention Week, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) recognizes that stigma is an enormous hurdle for those living with suicidality, mental illness, and/or substance use disorders. We can all do more to break stigma and ensure people in crisis feel safe getting the help they need. And we can start by changing the way we talk about suicide, mental illness, and substance use.
This week and every week, it is important to use compassionate, non-stigmatizing language when discussing these topics. Too often, well-intentioned people use stigmatizing language — either because they are speaking without thinking or because they are not sure what they should say. To assist, we have compiled a list of common stigmatizing terms and alternatives for everyday use.
Stigmatizing: “The dangerously mentally ill”
Why it is stigmatizing: The phrase “the mentally ill” labels people by their illnesses and does not make a distinction between the people and the illnesses. Additionally, the word “dangerous” is not a clinical word and reinforces the myth that people with mental illness are violent. In fact, mental illness is not a significant risk factor for interpersonal violence, and the majority of people with mental illness will never be violent.
What to say instead: “People with mental illness” or “people living with mental illness”
Stigmatizing: “Committed suicide”
Why it is stigmatizing: The word “committed” implies criminality. This phrase is a holdover from when many states classified suicide as a felony.
What to say instead: “Died by suicide” or “took his/her own life”
Stigmatizing: “Successful suicide” and “failed suicide”
Why they are stigmatizing: Both of these terms make suicide sound like a desired or positive outcome.
What to say instead: “Suicide” and “suicide attempt”
Stigmatizing: “She’s acting so bipolar.” / “His political views are schizophrenic.”
Why they are stigmatizing: Did you mean erratic? Illogical? Equating a mental illness with an unfavorable trait is both inaccurate and offensive to those who live with these illnesses.
What to say instead: If you are tempted to use mental health diagnoses colloquially to criticize or insult someone or something, find a more accurate word to describe your feelings.
Stigmatizing: “She’s depressed.” / “He’s bipolar.” / “They are schizophrenic.”
Why they are stigmatizing: A person should not be defined by an illness. People live with mental illness, but mental illness does not make them who they are.
What to say instead: “She has major depressive disorder.” / “He has bipolar disorder.” / “They have schizophrenia.”
Stigmatizing: “Alcoholic” or “drug addict”
Why they are stigmatizing: A person is more than their alcohol or substance use. These terms label people by their illnesses and do not make a distinction between the person and the illness. They also imply permanency.
What to say instead: “Person with alcohol use disorder” or “a person with substance use disorder”
The words we choose matter. These small changes can make a big difference. By using person-first, non-stigmatizing language, we can communicate compassion, understanding, and willingness to help those in need.
If you — or someone you know — need(s) help, call 1–800–273–8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.