How to talk about mental health: words matter

Posted on 06/30/21 10:53:am


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How we talk to someone who is struggling with mental health can make the difference between someone feeling accepted and understood, or feeling labeled as a disorder first and a human being second.

“Each of us has mental health, just as we each have physical health,” says Sue McKenzie Dicks, vice president of healthy culture and leader of Rogers InHealth. “On days when our physical health is low, we are still very much the person we were the day before, and we do not define ourselves by a temporary experience of illness. Even with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, our physical health is a part of our experience, not what defines us.”

“Using ‘person first’ language reminds us of that fact and aids in the reversal of stigmatizing beliefs about people who are dealing with mental illness or addiction,” Dicks explains.

Here are a few examples to help you navigate conversations surrounding mental health.

Don't say Say instead

She is a patient.

She is a person who receives help/treatment for a mental health or substance abuse problem.

He is disabled/handicapped.

He is a person with a disability.

She is normal.

She is a person without disabilities.

He is bipolar.

He has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder/He is living with bipolar disorder.

She is mentally ill/emotionally disturbed/psycho/insane/lunatic

She has a mental health problem or challenge/She is a person with lived experience of a mental health condition

He is psychotic.

He experiences symptoms of psychosis/He hears voices.

She is mentally retarded.

She has an intellectual disability.

He is autistic.

He has autism.

Unsuccessful suicide

Attempted suicide

Committed suicide

Died by suicide

Special education student

A student receiving special education services

Addict, abuser, junkie

Person with substance use disorder/Person experiencing drug/alcohol problem

Suffering with, or a victim of mental illness

Experiencing, or being treated for, or has a diagnosis of, or a history of mental illness

Check out this blog for additional information on what to say and what not to say when talking to someone with a mental health condition.

If you or someone you love is struggling, you can request a free, confidential screening through our online request form or call 800-767-4411.

Call 800-767-4411 or go to to request a free screening.