Talking about Mental Illness
Sometimes it can be confusing to figure out how to talk about mental illness. Words are powerful and the wrong words can be limiting and discriminatory. No one wants to be labeled. The illness is one aspect of people's lives, not the main thing that defines their lives. Here are some helpful guidelines and resources:
Which words do you use?
Before you talk to other people, plan what words you want to use.
Think about how much you or the person you're talking about want to be defined by the illness. You can describe how feelings and symptoms rather than using the label of a diagnosis. For example: "I'm sad about..." "I'm hopeful because..." "She has trouble concentrating when..."
If you do discuss a specific mental illness, you can speak about it the same way people talk about physical illness. For instance, when someone talks about diabetes, they say "I have diabetes." You can say "he has schizophrenia" rather than "he's schizophrenic".
Be a stigma-buster and discourage people from using:
Telling people for the first time
- Learn as much as you can about mental illness, so that you are prepared to answer questions.
- Be aware that they may not have a lot of knowledge about mental health and illness. Encourage them to learn more.
Talking with family members and friends
- Explain about situations that may trigger symptoms.
- Listen carefully and respectfully.
- Listen to feelings they express and what is important to them.
- Invite them out for positive distractions, such as walks, outings, and other activities, and talk about things other than mental illness.
- Remind them that, with time and treatment, mental illness can get better.
What should I ask my doctor if I am prescribed a psychiatric medication?
You and your family can help your doctor find the right medications for you. The doctor needs to know your medical history; family history; information about allergies; other medications, supplements or herbal remedies you take; and other details about your overall health. You or a family member should ask the following questions when a medication is prescribed:
- What is the name of the medication?
- What is the medication supposed to do?
- How and when should I take it?
- How much should I take?
- What should I do if I miss a dose?
- When and how should I stop taking it?
- Will it interact with other medications I take?
- Do I need to avoid any types of food or drink while taking the medication?
- Should it be taken with or without food?
- Is it safe to drink alcohol while taking this medication?
- What are the side effects? What should I do if I experience them?
After taking the medication for a period of time recommended by your doctor, tell your doctor how you feel, if you are having side effects, and any concerns you have about the medicine.
How to talk with employers and co-workers
- Disclosing your disability to an employer: for more information see Should I tell my boss?
How to talk with your children
When a family member is mentally ill it impacts the entire family. It is normal for young children and adolescents to experience many different emotions including fear, guilt, anger or embarassment when their parent is dealing with mental health concerns. It is important to talk with your children about how they feel. Helping them understand what you might be experiencing and addressing their concerns helps to normalize what the family is experiencing and reduce the stigma that is associated with mental illness.
The following links provide information about how to talk with your children:
- Here to Help: Talking to Children and Youth
- Our Healthy Minds: Talking to Children and Youth about Mental Illness
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Talking to Kids about Mental Illnesses
Tips for Good Communication
It can be hard to discuss difficult topics without angering or upsetting each other. One thing that can help is to be aware of how you are speaking. Are you being respectful? Are you allowing the other person to have their own opinions and decisions? Try saying, "When you say this, I feel..." rather than words like "good" or "bad", "right" or "wrong" and "fair" or "unfair."
Listen closely and do your best to understand what the other person is feeling. What is most important to them? While listening, try to stop thinking about all the things that you want to say and focus on them. Then tell them what you think you are hearing and ask if that is correct. Try taking turns — ask them to listen and understand what it is that you are feeling and what is most important to you. The goal is to understand what each other needs so that you can figure out solutions that will work for everyone.
Sources: National Institute of Mental Health; NAMI