COVID-19 causes a variety of physical problems, from mild symptoms to severe respiratory issues. But people often forget the mental health issues the pandemic can create. Stress, anxiety, and social isolation have all been intensified further by lockdowns and the threat of catching a potentially deadly virus.
Over one in five adults experience mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). And that’s not counting those who haven’t even gotten treatment yet. NAMI also found that the average delay between a person getting symptoms of mental illness and getting treatment is 11 years.
Whether you’re convincing a friend or a loved one to get treatment or simply discussing their mental illness with them in a casual conversation, it’s important to carefully choose your words. This is because you don’t want to define them by their illness. You want to acknowledge them as a person.
The Dangers Of Stigmatization
Stigma, in the context of mental health, is when you view a person negatively because of a characteristic or trait that distinguishes them from other people. In this case, it’s mental illness. This can make that person feel left out and alone. A person can also stigmatize themselves, believing in the labels that others put on them.
Over time, stigma can breed discrimination. Such situations include negative remarks about a person’s mental illness or offhand remarks about someone because they’re getting outpatient rehab to address personal issues related to their addiction. Discrimination can make a person ashamed of their illness and make them feel even more left out. This can lead to them isolation. Such activity can only make their illness worse and cut them off from their support systems.
Words and actions you didn’t think were harmful can cause a person with mental illness to feel alone and rejected by society. So what should you say and do when interacting with friends and loved ones with mental illness?
If you want to address and interact with people with mental illness, you need to use people-first language. This involves emphasizing the person and showing that their disability or illness is only part of them. This focus on the person helps eradicate any stereotype or generalization. Think of it as a preferred terminology by people with disabilities or mental illness.
Here are the things you should consider when it comes to using people-first language.
Acknowledge The Ordinary
You should recognize that people with mental illness and disorders are ordinary people like you. They may share your goals of having a career, a family, and a home. Their disorder or illness is just part of who they are. For example, the words “drug addict” and “alcoholic” equate the person with their illness. Instead, use “person with substance use disorder” and “person with alcohol use disorder.” This shows that they have a problem and it doesn’t define them.
Don’t Romanticize Their Illness
Although it does take a huge amount of effort and strength to recover from mental illness, you shouldn’t romanticize it. Ordinary tasks shouldn’t be considered exceptional when done by a person who is mentally ill. They do not become successful despite their illness because mental illnesses and disabilities are not challenges for people to overcome.
Take Hurtful Words Out Of Your Vocabulary
What may be ordinary words to you may be hurtful to people living with mental illness. The words “crazy,” “insane” and “psycho” have all been used to refer to people with mental illness. Instead of referring to an unusual situation as “crazy” or “insane,” use the words bizarre, odd, or wild instead. The term “mentally retarded” used to be a medical term. However, it’s also been used by others as an insult. As such, it’s better to say that a person has a developmental or intellectual disability.
When In Doubt, Ask
With all the people first terms you have to remember, knowing which one to use can be confusing. The practice is also constantly evolving, too. If you’re not sure how to refer to a person with a mental illness, ask them how they want themselves to be addressed. It may be a bit of an awkward question at first, but they’ll appreciate your effort.
Mental health is one of the most sensitive subjects to talk about. You want to acknowledge your loved one’s mental illness or disorder so you can discuss it better. However, you don’t want to risk saying the wrong thing and end up hurting them. Use these suggestions as guidelines to keep your language sensitive to people. And have genuinely respectful and worry-free conversations.