Choosing Words Wisely: Stigmatizing Expressions to Avoid
If anything positive has come out of the pandemic, it’s the spotlight that mental wellness has been given. In my view, there’s more discussion taking place about mental health and its importance – the fact that it’s a "real thing” – than ever before. Exciting! However, with these discussions happening more openly in workplaces, family and friend groups and the media, we must be aware that the language we use when we talk about mental health shapes the way people think about it.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of how some commonly-used expressions might perpetuate stigma:
“I didn’t get that promotion I was up for... I’m so depressed!”
There’s a huge difference between an emotional response – like sadness, frustration or disappointment – and clinical depression. This is the sort of statement I frequently hear in workplace environments. I also sometimes hear things like, “Bob’s on leave for depression? Come on, we’ve all felt a little down in the dumps before but we’ve showed up for work.” Using the word “depressed” inaccurately ends up trivializing the experience of true depression, leaving people with the impression that it’s something a person can and should simply get over.
“I have so much anxiety about this work project.”
It might seem like a subtle distinction but just like sadness and depression are two different animals, so are stress and anxiety. We often hear these words used interchangeably, but stress is meant to describe a very natural and useful evolutionary response while anxiety is basically a malfunction of that very survival instinct. Stress can be unpleasant for sure, but it’s not the same as living with anxiety. A person who’s dealing with stress can typically pinpoint the reason for their distress – such as working on a tight deadline for a work assignment – and even in the midst of stressful moments one can usually see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, meaning they understand their stress will be reduced once circumstances change (like handing in that tough work assignment). By contrast anxiety usually impacts a person’s ability to function and has significant effects of quality of life. When someone opens up to you about their anxiety, responding with, “I know all about it, I had so much anxiety last week about XYZ!” will likely leave them with the impression that you just don’t get it.
“How am I going to get this done by Friday? I’m having a panic attack!”
The mis-use of this term has led many people to believe a panic attack is nothing more than feeling extra stressed out. In actuality, a true panic attack can be indistinguishable from a heart attack. A lot of people are surprised to learn this because the term is thrown around loosely so often, leading many to believe a panic attack is no big deal and just requires a few deep breaths. Severe physiological symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, numbness in the limbs and even loss of consciousness can stem from a panic attack. Misusing this piece of language carries a grave risk: it may result in someone not getting medical attention when they need it.
Words matter! Using respectful, sensitive language and avoiding terms that further stigmatize mental health is essential for moving these important conversations forward. These might seem like small things but to a person who has or is presently living with a mental health problem, it’s big. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Choosing our words wisely is an accessible, powerful tool to combat stigma.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.