Mental Illnesses: Terms to use and those to avoid

The world has come a long way in the prioritization of mental health. We have begun to understand that poor physical health can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health illnesses and vice-versa.

More people are being open about their various mental health struggles, friends are helping and speaking out for friends, families are rallying round in full support and while this is very encouraging, we still have a long way to go.

One of the problems those living with mental illnesses face is the stigma.

It’s unbelievable that in the 21st century, some people still believe that mental illnesses are as a direct result of the actions of said person living with it/them but here we are.

We continue to challenge the status quo anyway, because we understand that people who grew up in a generation labeling those living with mental illnesses with derogatory terms like “crazy”, “unhinged”, and “psychotic” do not know better. We only hope articles like these would continue to inform and push for a critical reform in their mode of thinking.

Stigma, internalized or social, diminishes self esteem and robs people of social opportunities. Stigma may be one important factor in reducing help-seeking for mental illnesses, for example by avoiding the embarrassment of diagnosis.

Using the wrong terms, as regards different mental illnesses, can be described as a form of stigma. Most people living with mental illnesses find themselves out of their depth and struggle in silence because of this. Well-timed words are important as they serve as the difference between being helpful and supportive, and being judgemental and condescending.

Now, at some point we’ve all used one or more of these terms wrongly, but the fact that you want to be enlightened may grant you some brownie points only if you apply the corrections accordingly.

Below are some of the most commonly misused terminologies accompanied by the right expressions;

Don’t Use: Mental Illness as an aggregate term

Instead use: Mental illnesses or a mental illness.

Mental Illnesses are as unique and diverse as typical physical ailments. So using “mental illness” as a compound term to describe all types is wrong.

Don’t use;

Afflicted by mental illness,

Suffers from mental illness

Is a victim of mental illness

Mentally ill person or Person who is mentally ill.

Instead use: Person living with mental illness or Person living with mental health issues.

We have established the fact that mental health is as important as physical health. In actual fact, they’re intertwined as one cannot exist without the other. So, just as we don’t say a person, say Ann, is suffering from asthma or diabetes, we cannot say someone is suffering from mental illness.

Also, referring to a person as “a mentally ill person” just suggests that you are defining the person by their mental health issue which is wrong because they are a person first, with more sides to them than the fact that they are living with a mental illness.

To emphasize the point stated above;

Don’t: Diagnose using the person’s illness first e.g Joan is schizophrenic, Joan is Bipolar

Instead: Put the person first- Joan has schizophrenia, Joan has Bipolar disorder.

Like I said earlier, the person is more than their mental health issue so do not stigmatize.

Don’t use: “Schizophrenic”, “psycho”, “crazy” or “disturbed”

Instead use: Person living with schizophrenia, person experiencing psychosis/disorientation/hallucination.

I cannot overemphasize how disparaging the terms “psycho” and “crazy” are. Unless you’ve lived it, you cannot imagine how hard it is experience psychosis and/or hallucinations or even disorders mildly similar on the spectrum. Then to be written off with such offensive terms? It is unjust and it is unfair.

Don’t use: Normal behavior

Instead use: Usual/Typical behavior

Who set the bar for what is normal and what is not? Describing the behavior of those who do not have mental health issues as “normal” means labeling the behaviors of those with mental health issues as abnormal. That is unacceptable and wrong.

Don’t use: Substance abuse

Instead use: Substance abuse disorder

Using the term substance abuse proposes a choice. Research has shown however that addiction or severe substance abuse disorder is infact a brain disease and can be related to some neurological and emotional factors. That doesn’t sound like a choice to me.

Use the right term- It is a disorder. They shouldn’t be burdened with guilt as a result of the use of deprecatory terms as well.

Don’t use: Commited Suicide

Instead use: Died by suicide/ lost by suicide

Some mental illnesses distort reality to a point that the person(s) living with them believe that suicide is the best option out.

Using the term “committed suicide” implies blame for a crime committed. Just as we wouldn’t blame a person who died from stroke or diabetes or even cancer, we shouldn’t lay blame to one lost by suicide.

Other misused terminologies

There are other ways we misuse mental health terminologies that serve to belittle and trivialize the experiences of those living with mental illnesses. They include;

•Terming forgetfulness or inattention/distraction as Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

•Using ‘schizo’ to criticize irrational behavior or ‘psycho’ for eccentric behavior.

•Describing typical anxiousness as an anxiety disorder

•Calling someone ‘bi-polar’ because of their mood swings.

•Referring to cleanliness as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Misusing mental health terminology as stated above is wrong. In another post, I shall expatiate but for now please take note.


We must try to support not alienate those living with mental illnesses. Using derogatory terms would stigmatize and to some extent trivialize what they’re going through. It also prevents help-seeking behavior and this could be fatal. We should fight to live in a world where mental health stigma is frowned upon instead of mental health illnesses, where people aren’t judged and labeled for issues beyond their control.

Defining them, us, with our mental illnesses would only rob us of our true identities. And we have so much more to offer, if only you’d look beyond societal prejudices.

So Learn, Unlearn and Relearn❤️.

For more, read this article by Psychology Today, The Ten Commandments for how to talk about mental health.

Inspired by Nathaniel Seun (Twitter:@Nathanielseunn)

Compiled, written and edited by Joan Obi.

Mental health enthusiast. Aspiring author and medical student in a toxic relationship with coffee.

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