Inclusive Mental Health Language: A Guide

We learned from an early age that the words we use matter — that if we say something mean or rude, we can hurt other people’s feelings. Our choices when it comes to the words we use not only impact the people that we directly interact with, but also can negatively impact larger groups of people.

Using inclusive language creates an environment where all people feel welcome and respected. This is never more important than it is right now as it relates to mental health. To learn what inclusive language is and how to commit yourself to using inclusive language, we’ve put together an easy-to-understand guide for you.

A group of people with dark skin standing side by side with their arms around each other

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language is language that intentionally acknowledges that people have differences and communicates respect for those differences. Examples of inclusive language go far beyond using the correct pronouns to refer to someone, though personal pronouns are a great and important example of inclusive language. Inclusive language promotes equality and is sensitive to the challenges that certain groups face on a daily basis.

Consider the language used in policies, laws, or in the workplace and what information those words convey about people of different races, genders, or cultures. Historically, there are many painful examples of noninclusive language that left groups of people feeling disrespected, unheard, or misunderstood. Noninclusive language works to “other” a specific group of people, which can perpetuate not only stereotypes but also racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.

It can take a lot of intentionality to use inclusive language, yet it pays off when speaking without bias becomes a habit, no matter whether you’re talking to a colleague or to a friend. At work, you might avoid phrases like “blacklist and whitelist” or “sanity check,” and with friends you might use person-first language that avoids gender assumptions. It may take a lot of effort to change out the words that you use — especially if you grew up with certain common phrases generally accepted by society — but once you realize how pervasive noninclusive language is, you might find motivation to grow your own inclusivity.

Download Your Inclusive Mental Health Language Guide

Person-first language vs. identity-first language

Person-first language places the individual’s personhood and agency at the beginning of the sentence; identity-first language places the trait or condition as the main focus. Using person-first language is especially important in the mental health world.

You’ve likely heard someone describe another person as “an alcoholic” or maybe “a schizophrenic.” Instead of saying “an alcoholic,” say “a person who has challenges with alcohol.” Instead of calling someone “a schizophrenic,” say “a person with schizophrenia.” You can imagine the difference that it has on someone when they’re first identified as a person, rather than a condition.

It’s generally best to use person-first language, especially when describing people who struggle with their mental health. If you would like to ask someone how they identify, it’s alright to ask them in a respectful way. You’re better off asking ahead of time and getting it right.

What are examples of inclusive language?

There are many excellent examples of inclusive language that you can use to guide your inclusive language practices. We’ve created a guide of some commonly found inclusive language to get you started.

What if I mess up?

Messing up is normal. People make mistakes, especially when they’re first endeavoring to make their language inclusive! You might be surprised how biased our everyday language is, once you start picking up on the origins behind common phrases.

If someone corrects you, realize that it’s an opportunity for growth, rather than a judgment on who you are as a person. While it can be difficult not to take a correction personally, remind yourself that you’re still learning and that’s okay. When corrected for using noninclusive language, you can respond, “Thank you for pointing that out, I didn’t know.” You can also respond, “Thank you for letting me know,” and make the correction for the remainder of the conversation. Chances are, the person who corrected you appreciates your dedication to helping them feel more comfortable by being open to using different language when describing them.

If you feel motivated to learn more about a certain word or piece of inclusive language, remember that it must not be on the shoulders of that specific community to educate others on what’s appropriate. There are many excellent online resources where you can learn more about what language is appropriate and what questions are appropriate.

Mental health-related inclusive language

Instead of saying this…

Say this…

Wow, that’s so crazy Wow, that’s wild
That’s insane That’s confusing; that’s really complex
They’re suffering with depression They’re living with depression
That’s nuts I can’t believe that
They’re totally acting schizo It can be confusing because they change their mind about things quite often
They’re psychotic They aren’t super nice and can be manipulative
The weather is bipolar outside The weather is changing between being warm one day, then cold the next
They’re a bipolar They’re a person with bipolar disorder
They’re borderline They’re a person with borderline personality disorder
They’re a drug addict They’re a person with substance use challenges
Can I sanity check this with you? Can I explain my thinking to make sure that I’m not missing anything?
They were hysterical when they heard the news They were really upset when they heard the news
That’s so retarded That’s not cool
I can be really OCD about this type of thing I really like to do things a certain way when it comes to this task
I’m going anorexic today I’m not eating very much today
They’re such a spaz They have high energy sometimes
They’re mentally ill They have a mental illness

Accessibility-related inclusive language

Instead of saying this…

Say this…

I feel so dumb I feel like I should have known that
That’s so lame That’s not very cool
That really blindsided me I didn’t expect that
Are you deaf? I told you that yesterday I already told you so I’m repeating myself

Identity-related inclusive language

Instead of saying this…

Say this…

They’re homeless They’re experiencing homelessness
They’re a victim They’re a survivor
The elderly person The older person
That’s so gay! That’s not cool!
Hi guys! Hi everyone!
They/them are their preferred pronouns They/them are their personal pronouns; They/them are their pronouns

Reducing the stigma of mental health

Using inclusive language means taking intentional steps towards reducing the stigma of mental health. For those who struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, hearing inclusive language helps them feel they aren’t “broken” — rather, that they’re people going through a difficult time. Reducing the stigma, therefore, means more people feeling empowered to access therapy services. Inclusive language breaks down the barriers that many people face when seeking mental health services, which in turn can be what they need to start living fulfilling, authentic, joyful lives.