The Language of Mental Health


If I can have a few minutes of your time, I’d like to encourage you to think about a tool you use in some fashion for probably the majority of your waking life: language. (Trigger Warning: I’m going to discuss suicide, OCD, and sexual assault. The word “rape” comes up several times. If any of these topics or choices of words make you uncomfortable, please feel free to skip this post.)

Language is how we express ourselves, and I think that most of us would probably like to think that this is exactly how language works: we have a thought that we want to express, we find the words for it, and we say or write those words, conveying exactly what we want to express to anyone listening or reading.

In a parallel universe in which we were always paying precise attention to what we were doing, this might be how language would be perfectly used. But the reality is that we aren’t always paying attention to what we are saying and/or the implications of what we are saying, which leaves a lot of room for our language to express, reinforce, and perpetuate ideas and assumptions that we don’t consciously “mean” to support.

Before I get into some examples, let me make something clear: I don’t have the authority to tell you what you can and can’t say (outside of a couple slurs, like the n-word, that depending on your identity you absolutely need to cut out of your vocabulary). I believe strongly in the always-relevant freedom of speech guaranteed in this country by the First Amendment. Think of these examples not as “banned phrases,” or even “suggestions for things not to say,” but rather as phrases that say more than you may intend. Instead of simply cutting them out of your vocabulary, you should take the time to think about them and what you are really expressing when you say them.

1. “Committed suicide." For 99% of people, this phrase probably does not seem all that distinct from my preferred phrase, "died by suicide.” But when I think of my friend Nathan, who died by suicide last April… I don’t want to describe his death, the product of a struggle with mental health issues that he never shared with anyone, with the same verb that I would use to describe the action of someone who had committed murder, arson, or another crime. Outside of college decisions and relationships, “commit” is generally a word that assigns criminal blame, and if you think about it you may find that you don’t want to be describing the victims of suicide as blameworthy.

2. “I’m so OCD." The reality is, if you are somewhat organized, you have probably said this before (probably because someone else said it first, and you learned that if you stacked quarters neatly around your friends that’s what you should naturally say). Before you say it again, you should think about who you are comparing yourself to: the 2 to 3 million people in the U.S. and more throughout the world that are trying to manage everyday activities while dealing with anxiety-inducing obsessions and compulsions. If you have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, you can’t simply walk away. Is it belittling to their experience to describe folding clothes carefully with the same term? You may be implying that you have it "just as bad,” reinforcing to everyone in the surrounding area that OCD isn’t a real issue. I hope that isn’t the message you’re trying to send, but it might be the one you are sending, regardless of your intent.

3. “Raped." This example is not directly related to mental health, but sexual assault can have such a profound effect on victims’ mental health that I deemed it worth including. Rape should be a word used to describe rape: a criminal act, a bodily violation, and a traumatic event. It can’t be perpetrated by an exam, and it definitely is not an act to be proud of. Yet every time finals rolls around, out it comes: "I just got raped by that orgo exam.” The trauma of the event is belittled. (If, in your opinion, taking an exam is as bad as being sexually assaulted, then you have encountered one of those rare moments in life in which an opinion can be really, truly, and completely wrong.) Scarier still is when I’m playing a video game with voice chat, and every once in a while I’ll hear “We’re totally raping them!” In this case, the act is actually glorified. If you ever find yourself saying either of these statements, or any sentence where you’re not using rape to describe actual rape, I strongly encourage you to think about the messages you’re sending outside of what you think is your intended sentiment.

There are, of course, more cases that I could discuss. But I’m hopeful that, using these examples as a model, you might start to think more about any language you’re using. According to a very old and likely inaccurate study, the average person says somewhere around 13,000 words per day (and that’s not including all the things we “say” via text, emails, and social media). What exactly are you expressing through these 13,000 daily words? And who’s listening? Is it a friend of one of last year’s estimated 1,100 college student suicide victims, hearing the criminal label you attach to that victim’s actions? Is it someone struggling with OCD, hearing how jokingly you discuss their all-too-real disorder? Is it someone who was raped last year, or last week, or yesterday night, unsure whether they can talk to anyone about it because everyone seems to think it’s only as bad as a tough chem test?

Think about it.

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