9 Common Phrases That Actually Perpetuate Mental Health Stigma — And What To Say Instead

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro
BDG Media, Inc.

For many people with mental illness, mental health advocates, and professionals alike, an essential goal of mental health awareness is to challenge the stigmas that surround mental health conditions. Stigma can have a super detrimental impact on the health and quality of care for mentally ill people. In fact, a 2014 report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that mental health stigma is a primary barrier when it comes to mentally ill people accessing appropriate healthcare and resources.

Mental health stigma can manifest (and be perpetuated) in many different ways — through a lack of education about mental illness, outright discrimination against mentally ill people, violence perpetrated against those with mental health issues, myths, and through ableist language. Most people know that saying "crazy" or "insane" is discriminatory towards people with mental illness, but there are many other common terms and phrases people use on a daily basis that can make mental health stigma even worse. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the theme is to Cure Stigma, so knowing what to say instead of ableist words and phrases is crucial. When in doubt, describing a situation accurately and without bias — saying a situation is "surprising" or "out of control" rather than "crazy" — goes a long way towards reducing stigma. Here are nine common phrases people use that contribute to mental health stigma — and what to say instead.


"This Weather Is So Bipolar"

If the weather is unpredictable or erratic, it's very possible that someone will try to describe it as "bipolar," but this only contributes to mental health stigmas surrounding this serious mood disorder. People who live with bipolar disorder don't simply experience rapid mood changes, but intense periods of depression and mania that can be extremely debilitating.

Rather than describing the weather as "bipolar" — or people, or relationships, for that matter — you can use words that don't contribute to misinformation about the mood disorder, and that accurately describe what's happening.


"You're So OCD"

There is a common misconception that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is just a form of extreme cleanliness and orderliness, and people often use this mental illness as an adjective to describe people who are perfectionists about cleaning. However, this couldn't be farther than the reality of living with OCD: Not only do people with OCD experience compulsive, repetitive behaviors, but they also can experience intrusive thoughts — which are typically uncontrollable preoccupations with violence, religion, sex, or disturbing images. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates 1.2 percent of U.S. adults have OCD, and around half of these people are considered to experience a severe disability.

So, when someone jokes about how "OCD" they are, they are further stigmatizing many people who struggle with a serious illness. Rather, you can say you're tidy, neat, orderly, or any other number of words that accurately describe the situation.


"I'm So Triggered"

The word "triggered" was developed as way for people with PTSD to accurately identify when something prompts traumatic flashbacks, panic, or other PTSD symptoms. As Juliette Virzi writing for The Mighty pointed out, this term has largely been co-opted by conservative pundits, at the expense of people with PTSD who often struggle to put words to what they're feeling.

If someone doesn't experience mental health triggers, it's important to be mindful not to use this term as a joke, during a disagreement, or in response to something disappointing. It makes it more difficult for people who actually have PTSD to get support when they experience symptoms. Instead, you can say "I don't like that," or "that's upsetting," or another phrase that describes how you're feeling.


"You're Being Hysterical"

The phrase "you're hysterical" or "you're being hysterical" is a double whammy: it's both sexist and ableist. The word "hysterical" has a history of being weaponized against women who disagree with men as a way to invalidate their feelings and gaslight them. Not to mention, hysteria used to be a diagnosable psychological condition (created by men, of course) believed to be "caused by a defect in the womb," and it led to abuses against women in psychiatric hospitals. Let's just retire this outdated term, with its dark history, once and for all.


"They're So Psycho"

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) reports one in five people in the U.S. live with mental illness, and one in twenty-five people live with severe mental illness. Using the word "psycho" (short for psychosis) as an insult perpetuates the stigma that having a mental illness is bad, or some kind of moral failing, which it never is.


"Just Cheer Up"

People who say "happiness is a choice" or "just cheer up" to folks with mental health issues may have good intentions, but this phrase can be ultra-frustrating. As much as I (and many others with mental illness) would love to simply "choose" happiness, I can't make my brain produce more serotonin (aka, a neurotransmitter essential to maintaining your mood and mental health). In fact, many mentally ill people rely on antidepressants to aid their brain in making the chemicals it can't make on its own. Instead of suggesting mental illness is a choice, listen when someone with mental illness is discussing what's going on in their life — and know that you don't need to suggest a solution to be helpful.


"I'm So Depressed"

Grief, heartbreak, or sadness is not the same thing as having depression, a diagnosable mental health issue. Though each of these experiences is painful in its own way, they are distinct experiences — and conflating them makes it harder for people who experience depression to have their mental illness taken seriously. Instead, be mindful to describe the experience you're feeling in an accurate way. It's OK to be sad, to be heartbroken, to grieve, and to be depressed, but it's important to give each of these experiences its own weight.


"I’m Going To Have A Panic Attack"

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), symptoms of an abrupt panic attack can include heart palpitations, trembling, difficulty breathing, nausea, dizziness, chills, and more — meaning, it can be scary and overwhelming. But if someone is saying they're going to have a panic attack as a joke, or in response to something not terribly inconvenient, it makes it harder for people who do experience panic attacks to get the help they need. Rather, be mindful to just say you're really "nervous," "tense," or "jumpy" in stressful situations.


Joking About Suicide

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reports that approximately every 12.8 minutes, someone dies by suicide in the U.S. Moreover, the AFSP reports suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 and 34, and at least 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health issue.

Suicidal ideation or an actual suicidal attempt are issues majority of people with mental health issues struggle with at some point. When someone jokes about dying by suicide, it makes light of something that may be the darkest time in someone's life. That being said, many people who live with chronic suicidal thoughts or mental illness may find comfort in joking about their health issues — and that is a valid expression of emotion. Instead of making a joke if you don't experience suicidal ideation, you can say "I'm stressed out," or "I'm upset," or another phrase that describes how you're feeling.

Simply put, if you don't have a mental illness, it's important not to joke about them, trivialize them, or use them as descriptors that can be applied to any random situation. Mental health stigma is an issue we can all work to combat, and one simple step is being mindful of our language.