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Harmful Phrases to the Mental Health Community

Mental health stigma presents in many ways, but there’s one in particular that we need to talk about: common stigmatizing phrases used in everyday conversations. Intentional or not, there are some things that are adding to the negative stigma around the mental health community and make it harder for those with mental illnesses to be taken seriously.

If you’re reading this article, you’re either:

  • A member of the mental health community.

  • An ally to the mental health community.

  • A friend/loved one of someone who really wanted you to see this message.

Whatever reason you’re here, we’re so glad you are! At Punk Rock Saves Lives (PRSL), we care about you and your mental health. We know that not everyone knows or understands how certain phrases can be harmful, so we want to lend a hand and create a list of some of the most commonly used ones that are problematic and hurtful to make it easier for you to be a better ally!

“I’m So (Insert Mental Illness Here)!”

Claiming to experience a mental health disorder just because you are showcasing a surface trait is incredibly harmful. Some common uses:

  • “I’m so OCD!” Because you like things a certain way.

  • “I’m so depressed…” When you’re sad about something.

  • “I’m being bipolar” When you’re being indecisive or experiencing slight mood swings.

The people who experience these mental health disorders have tangible, medical reasons for experiencing their symptoms, and it goes far beyond a few short hours of behavior. By using these phrases, you are invalidating the experiences of people who have these disorders, and even making a mockery of them. You have the luxury of these feelings of sadness or irritation going away; they live with them daily.

For example: getting annoyed when things aren’t put away where they should be is NOT the same as someone who has to wash their hands a certain number of times, turn the light switch on/off a certain number of times, or have everything juuuuust so or else their mental health deteriorates to the point of crisis.

ANY Joking Reference to Suicide

If you’re going to talk about suicide in any way but a tangible context: just don’t.

Embarrassment is not an excuse to say “I’m just going to go kill myself now”. Any use of suicide outside of serious mental health conversations is stigmatizing and cruel. You never know who has been affected or who struggles. While it may seem like a joke to you, to someone else it is a major trauma trigger.

“They’re Crazy”

The use of the word “crazy” is complicated. Conversationally, “crazy” can mean so many things…which is why it’s important to look at the context.

When calling someone crazy, it’s always used as a negative. “Crazy eyes” is a popular example. Or how many people who commit crimes are immediately called “crazy”, which is damaging to those with diagnosed mental illness.

As a whole, because it is a word with intentionally negative reference toward the “dangerous” or “extreme” mannerisms associated with the general, stigmatized view of mental illness, it’s best to just try to find a word better-suited and less damaging to complete your phrase.

“Just Be Positive”

Any phrase that embraces toxic positivity is problematic at best. For many with mental illness, particularly those with depression who frequently hear these phrases, the illness is caused by chemical imbalances in their brain. They literally do not have the normal production of serotonin that leads to feelings of happiness.

Common phrases include:

  • “Just be positive”

  • “Happiness is a choice”

  • “It could be worse”

  • “This is God’s plan; He has something good for you coming”

Any variations of these and so many more are harmful. They’re bandaid phrases used to make you feel better, because they certainly aren’t helping the person experiencing the mental illness.

ANY Negative Commentary About Appearance

You don’t know what someone is experiencing. Saying something to someone about their body is rude and inappropriate in any context, but you have no idea if they struggle with body dysmorphia, an eating disorder, or a mental illness that is being fed because of the insecurity that you just created for them.

DO NOT talk about someone’s appearance, period. If it’s not a piece of lint, spinach in their teeth, or a tear in their pants and you’re looking out for them–i.e. if it’s not able to be fixed in five seconds–DON’T SAY ANYTHING.

It is not your place to talk about their weight, their piercings, their scars. It is not your place to shun their tattoos. It is not kind to point out pimples or poor posture (that could have medical reasons and cause no end of discomfort and insecurity for the person). It is rude to offer backhanded compliments. It is not your place to discuss these things, particularly without invitation.

Go back to the Golden Rule we learned as children: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Anything that Invalidates A Person’s Struggle

We’ll say it again: You don’t know what someone is experiencing.

Think about what you say before you say it. Ask yourself: “Could this be seen as rude or harmful?” If the answer is yes: DON’T SAY IT!

Don’t say things that make a person think they aren’t entitled to feeling the emotions that they feel. Different people have different life experiences that lead them to react to situations differently. Just because you don’t share the same reaction, does not mean that they are not entitled to feeling the way that they do.

What it all boils down to: just be kind. Be respectful. And do the work.

If someone lets you know that something you’ve said is harmful, take the note and do better. Acknowledge the boundary, apologize, and make the change.

Your loved ones will appreciate the effort!

As a note: we know not everyone is triggered by the same phrases. One of these might be comfortable for a mentally ill person to hear, while another may be extremely damaging to them. Out of respect for the mental health community, it’s always a good idea to work towards eliminating them from your vocabulary anyway!

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