How language contributes to discrimination
Language both reflects and shapes social reality so our choice of words can reinforce stereotypes and contribute to various forms of discrimination.
Advocates for social justice have highlighted the power of language in reinforcing stereotypes, particularly those relating to the unequal social status of women, people with disabilities and people from various ethnic and racial backgrounds. Mental illness belongs on that list too.
Alternatives for describing mental illness
Listed below are some guidelines on avoiding using language that reinforces stigma and discrimination when writing or talking about people with experience of mental illness or when reporting on suicide.
- It’s often necessary to shorten descriptions, but constructions that label people as their illness, for example, ‘Susan is bipolar’ / ‘Jack is a schizophrenic’ are stigmatising and rob people of their individuality. Instead use ‘people first’ language, emphasizes a person’s worth and abilities rather than being defined by a diagnosis or label. For example: ‘Susan has bipolar disorder’, ‘Jack has schizophrenia' or ‘Jack has a diagnosis of schizophrenia'. It’s the same for plurals. ‘They are schizophrenics’ becomes ‘They have schizophrenia’.
- Avoid the article ‘the' as in ‘the mentally ill'. Use phrases such as ‘people with...', ‘a person with...', and name the specific illness i.e. ‘people with bipolar disorder', people with an anxiety disorder, or ‘a person with depression'.
- Using ‘mental illness' as a blanket term can be inaccurate. For example, ‘William Brown has mental illness’. There are many mental illnesses so ‘William Brown has ‘a mental illness’, or ‘William Brown has been diagnosed with a mental illness’, is more accurate.
- Avoid ascribing emotion or passing negative judgment on people’s quality of life. Instead of describing someone as ‘suffering' from, being a ‘victim of’ or ‘afflicted with’ a mental illness use ‘experience'. For example, ‘supporting men experiencing depression', or ‘supporting men with experience of depression', rather than ‘men suffering from depression’.
A note on visual language
Images are powerful. Be sensitive when using images or footage with stories involving mental illness. It’s easy to perpetrate negative stereotypes with photographs of people looking dishevelled, disoriented or menacing.
Social media tips
Our tips on language used to describe mental illness and suicide apply to social media as well. On Facebook posts or Twitter feeds language short-cuts are the currency, but it’s still important to remember the ‘people first’ rule and avoid stigmatising descriptions of people with a mental illness. Don’t glamorise or sensationalise suicide.
Be respectful too of what people who experience mental illness may post on social media. It can be a source of affirmation, connection and support for many.