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What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Mental Illness?

What do we talk about when we talk about mental illness? This is a question posed by David Bjerklie, a writer for TIME Magazine. Language, he notes, is extremely important and always evolving. This question, he says, is as much medicine as it is language. “Our words frame and reflect our understanding (and misunderstandings) about illness. But they also drive that understanding.”

For example, he says, “scary words elicit scary feelings; ugly words, ugly feelings.” Words drive stigma. We know this, but does it stop everyone in their tracks when they’re about to be rude and hurtful? No, of course not. On the flip side, however, our words can protect us. How we say what we say matters just as much as the content. Continue reading to learn more about how we talk about mental illness.


Fear is posed by Bjerklie, saying that “we are often afraid of people with mental disorders. We fear their unpredictability and our inability to fully comprehend their illness. We fear what looks like volitional behavior.” This inability to understand leads to fear of the illness, of the person. Bjerklie uses the comparison of a physical illness to a mental illness: “A heart attack is not a choice when it’s underway.

A tumor can’t be willed to disappear. But depression? Phobias? Anxiety? Obsessive-compulsive rituals? Buckle down. Get a grip.” This fear leads to harmful stigmas about those who are just doing their best to get through their suffering.

The Words We Use

Words have connotations. Most of the time, we are able to think of a positive or negative word. We know them when we hear them. “It’s not just ‘crazy,’ ‘kooky’ or ‘bonkers,’ which have little intrinsic meaning outside of their applications to mental illness,” says Bjerklie. “There are ‘cracked,’ ‘unhinged’ and ‘unbalanced,’ words for a thing that is broken. There are ‘deranged,’ ‘unsound’ and ‘berserk,’ words of imminent menace. And there are words that strip humanity entirely: the person who ‘goes ape,’ the person who is ‘batty.’”

Our words have the power to help or hurt the person who is just doing their best to get through their suffering. This stigma is not okay. We shouldn’t use these words when we talk about mental illness. “Imagine referring to a cancer patient as some kind of animal. We don’t. We wouldn’t. But the person with a mental illness? Sure.”

Villa Tranquil Recovery is committed to watching the words we use when we talk about mental illnesses and addictions. Call us today at 214-799-3080. We want to hear from you today. Call now. You won’t be disappointed.