In recent decades, increasing attention has been paid to the way our mental health affects our lives. For example, not so long ago, many people thought of depression and anxiety as personal failings or weaknesses, and that sufferers of such disorders simply needed to be more mentally competent or tough. Mental health problems which were once deeply stigmatized and not well understood now receive much more positive attention, and awareness of such conditions is rising. Likewise, the treatments and solutions to mental health problems—everything from self-guided meditation to clinical therapy to psychotherapy with medications—are surrounded by far less mystery and negative connotations. The causes and contributing factors of poor mental health are also receiving more scrutiny.
All this increased awareness should be accompanied by greater care and accuracy with respect to terminology. In the not-too-distant past, derogatory terms like “crazy” and “insane” were used without much regard to the damaging effects they might have. Today we are much more sensitive about how we discuss and refer to mental health issues, but more clarity is always welcome. This article will “disambiguate” some of the words and ideas associated with mental health today.
What is mental illness?There are many kinds of mental health problems, but not all mental health problems are mental illnesses. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” The term “mental disorder” refers to the same group of illnesses.
A comprehensive list of mental illnesses is of course outside the scope of this article, but according to an article published online in 2021 by MedicineNet, the ten most common mental health illness diagnoses are:
-Anxiety disorders-Bipolar affective disorders-Depression-Dissociative disorders-Eating disorders-Paranoia-Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)-Psychosis-Schizophrenia-Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
MedicineNet goes on to assert that as many as one in four people in the United States may suffer from mental illness at any given time. That’s one reason that it’s important to get it right when talking about mental health problems—there are many people involved.
“Mental illness” vs. “mentally ill” and other inappropriate terminologyBefore discussing some of the dos and don’ts surrounding mental health terminology, a disclaimer is in order. No matter what words you use, it’s important to remember that mental health is a very personal matter, and an excess of caution and sensitivity is always called for. You can use precisely correct terminology and still give offense.
Given that you are prepared for a thoughtful and appropriate discussion about mental health, let’s turn to terms and phrases that will help. First, terms such as “mentally ill,” “mentally disturbed,” and “mentally disabled” are not considered appropriate or polite. An article published in 2017 by Psychiatry Today also suggests the “person-first” way of referring to mental health conditions—instead of saying “John is schizophrenic,” and thus conflating John’s identity with his illness, it’s best to say, “John has schizophrenia.” Instead of saying, “John is mentally ill,” say that “John has a mental illness.” Likewise, avoid terms like “suffers from” and “is afflicted by,” as these are also considered insensitive. This is the case when discussing mental and physical health. Saying that “John has a history of” or “John is being treated for” is a less-fraught way of talking about mental health.
SuicideThere may have been a time when saying someone “committed suicide” was an appropriate way of saying that someone “killed herself,” but both expressions are no longer considered appropriate. A more sensitive way of saying it is that the person “died from suicide” or “died of suicide.”