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How to Talk About Mental Health (According to the Experts)

On October 23, 2019, CBS News hosted a broadcast dedicated to mental health and stigma, called “Stop the Stigma: A Conversation About Mental Health.” Ahead of the broadcast, they worked with experts to create a guide to the dos and don’ts of talking to or about people who have experienced mental illness. Here is an abbreviated version of the guide.

Do use language that’s in line with medical conditions.

Mental illnesses are medical illnesses, and the terminology used should reflect that, according to Dr. Carol Bernstein, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

Don’t refer to people as their illnesses.

Instead of saying someone “is schizophrenic” or “is bipolar,” use person-first language as you would with any other illness. Similarly, instead of saying someone is “suffering” from a mental health condition, say they are “living” with it. This is language that reinforces the idea that one can live a meaningful life with their mental illness, and that they may not be “suffering” all the time.

Do say “died by” or “death by” suicide.

Saying someone “committed” suicide makes it sound more like crime, or may place undue blame on someone who died by suicide, according to psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma. She advises that one should look at it like they might cancer: a battle that someone fought and eventually lost, rather than a moral failing. Dr. Bernstein agrees: “You wouldn’t say someone ‘committed’ hypertension or cancer.”

Don’t use the word “issues.”

Dr. Teri Brister, Director of Information and Support at NAMI argues that saying someone faces a mental health “issue” trivializes their experience. This language may also imply that one’s struggles with mental illness may be by choice or a character flaw, rather than a medical condition.

Do ask open ended questions.

Neutral, open-ended questions that come from a place of compassion may be more effective when checking in on a person with a mental health disorder. Listen attentively and respond empathetically, but try not to ask prying questions; instead, follow their lead on how much they want to talk.

Do engage with people impacted by mental illness.

Engaging with people affected by mental illness is important, says Dr. Brister. However, mental illnesses are rarely treated like other conditions, such as a broken leg, a surgery, or a birth – events she calls “casserole illnesses” – and neighbors, though well intentioned, rarely know how to respond. Dr. Varma recommends spending time with the person living with mental illness, and to be consistent and reliable.

Do help them get help.

“No matter how much you love them and care for them, and even if you use the right language,” Dr. Varma says, “if they are not getting help, they are never going to get better.”

Read the original article on CBS News, published 22 October 2019, and follow all coverage from the Stop the Stigma campaign.

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