Mental health matters: How to think and speak sensitively

Words matter, and that’s especially true when it comes to mental health.

But if you aren’t an expert in behavioral health, it can be hard to know what the right language is to use when discussing these issues.

WellTuned spoke with Rhonda Roper, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee behavioral health clinical director, to learn more.

What’s the best way to approach the topic of mental health?

“The most important thing to remember is that people are more than their condition,” says Roper. “We’re moving away from saying, ‘Jane is diabetic,’ and instead saying, ‘Jane is a person who has diabetes’. We need to use that same language when discussing mental health conditions. Thinking and speaking that way helps you avoid the idea that a condition is all someone is.”

When talking about mental or behavioral health:

  • Be respectful and nonjudgmental
  • Avoid stigmatizing language
  • Practice empathy

“A good way to ensure you’re acting out of kindness is to put yourself in someone else’s position,” says Roper. “Consider whether you’d be hurt or offended if someone referred to you or a loved one a certain way. Avoid words that would make you sad, angry or uncomfortable.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers these tips:

Mental health condition Disease, disorder or imbalance
Mental health Mental illness
My daughter has bipolar disorder My daughter is bipolar
Has a substance abuse disorder Is an addict
Lives with, has or experiences Suffers from, is afflicted with or is mentally ill

For example, say someone “has autism” rather than “is autistic,” or that someone “lives with schizophrenia” rather than “is schizophrenic.”

What role does stigma play?

Stigma causes people to feel ashamed for something that is out of their control. It includes perceived stigma as well as self-stigma, which is when a person with a mental health condition agrees with stereotypes and public stigma and applies those judgments to him or herself.

When talking about mental and behavioral health issues, remember that mental illness is as real as physical illness. Mental conditions are no one’s fault, and their symptoms are not something a person can control.

“Mental and behavioral health conditions are often surrounded with shame,” says Roper. “Understanding them is a step we can all take to erase that.”

Is there anything you can do to ensure sensitivity?

If you’re talking to someone else about their mental health, listen more and talk less.

  • Ask open-ended questions and validate their emotions.
  • When starting sensitive conversations, it may help to talk about “well being” rather than “mental health.”
  • Above all, remember our goal is to take a holistic view of everyone.

“A disorder or condition is not the whole person,” says Roper. “We want to remove as many barriers as possible so people can talk openly and get the care they need.”

Visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness to learn more.

More mental health resources on WellTuned

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).