“Eco-anxiety” isn’t going anywhere. Feelings of worry over the future health of the planet, psychotherapists say, is actually a healthy response to the climate crisis. The American Psychological Association first defined it in 2017, but the term probably wouldn’t have existed a decade ago—and not because climate change wasn’t yet on heavy rotation in the headlines.

These days, the stigma around mental health is shattering at lightning speed. On social media, we’re watching celebrities and friends talk openly about anxiety and depression. We’re downloading meditation apps like Headspace and Calm onto our phones.

And with options like BetterHelp, Talkspace, and Therapy for Black Girls, we have more accessible, convenient, and inclusive spaces for mental health support than ever before.

None of this happened overnight, of course: The widespread acceptance of mental health as an essential part of our wellbeing is the culmination of many factors, from the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act to today’s burnout crisis.

But one of the biggest factors empowering the positive mental health movement is language.

Why Words Matter In Mental Health

Our brains are wired to react to words emotionally. Whether we like it or not, hearing certain words—like “abnormal,” “psychotic,” or “mental patient”—can subconsciously trigger negative biases, bring about shame, and prevent someone from seeking the care they need.

“Being thoughtful with the language we use validates people’s experiences and helps us better relate to one another,” says clinical psychologist Lynn Jonen, Ph.D, who serves as the Clinical Director for Sierra Tuscon.

Changes in Mental Health Language

Jonen observed the way language in mental health has evolved several decades, and below, she shares a few of the most impactful changes.

1. Commit Suicide

We used to say: “She committed suicide,” or “she took her own life.”

What we say now: “She died by suicide,” or “we lost her to suicide.”

Why it changed: “Saying someone took their own life implies a conscious choice,” says Jonen. “We know that when people get to the point where they are hopeless and depressed enough that they die by suicide, they’re not really thinking clearly—at least that’s how we look at it in mental health. Instead, saying ‘we lost them to suicide’ highlights the tragedy of it.”

2. Anxiety Disorder

What we used to say: “My coworker has social anxiety disorder.”

What we’d say now: “My coworker experiences social anxiety.”

Why it changed: Using the term “disorder” in everyday language is out. This example helps normalize feelings that are actually quite common and natural. It also helps to frame the symptoms or situation in a way that’s less permanent-sounding and more “work through-able.” “The only time when the word ‘disorder’ can be helpful is in a technical context,” adds Jonen. “Psychologists and other diagnosticians use it to indicate when someone’s symptoms have risen to the level that they are causing inability to function in everyday life and they might need a little more intensive treatment. It’s info that goes to insurance companies for reimbursement.”

3. PTSD

We used to say: “This therapist treats post-traumatic stress disorder.”

What we’d say now: “This therapist treats post-traumatic stress.”

Why it changed: Again, in this case, it’s important to realize that the trauma response is an automatic protective reaction to a traumatic event. “If someone goes through trauma and they experience symptoms like flashbacks, hypervigilance, or nervous system deregulation, that’s not a disorder—that’s a natural way the body tries to cope and protect itself,” says Jonen. “To call it a disorder would be inaccurate.”

4. Gender Identity Disorder

What we used to say: “They have a gender identity disorder.”

What we’d say now: “They’re exploring their own gender identity,” or “they’re experiencing gender identity dysphoria.”

Why it changed: The language around sexuality and gender identity has experienced a huge shift over the years. The American Psychiatric Association last revised the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 2012 to remove the term “gender identity disorder,” replacing it with “gender identity dysphoria” and dropping the messaging around pathology. “The labeling of disorder here implies that something needs to be fixed. Imagine what that does to someone—their whole identity is invalidated,” says Jonen. “It’s so important to acknowledge the spectrum of gender identity and fluidity, the difference between gender identity and sexual identity, and every nuance in between. So when someone comes to my office about this, we just talk. And until symptoms cause difficulties in function, we don’t necessarily have a problem.”

5. Schizophrenic

We used to say: “I have an appointment with a schizophrenic/addict at 2 o’clock.”

What we’d say now: “I’m meeting a woman who’s struggling with schizophrenic/addiction symptoms.”

Why it changed: In mental health, it’s all about taking a person-centered approach to language and stepping away from classifying a person as an illness or their circumstance. “When we’re talking about people, we don’t refer to them as a problem. It’s important that people are seen as people,” stresses Jonen. This approach makes it clear that a person’s symptoms are only one part of their experience—not their whole identity.

6. Victim

What we used to say: “She was a victim of an eating disorder,” or “she’s suffering from an eating disorder.”

What we’d say now: “She’s in eating recovery.”

Why it changed: Using terminologies like “victim” or “suffering” in reference to people who are experiencing or working through an issue can suggest a lack of quality of life. Instead, focus on the positive fact that they’re in treatment and learning ways to cope and heal.

New Mental Health Language

The vocabulary around mental health isn’t just changing, it’s growing to include new phrases and words.

1. Trauma

New language: Big “T” trauma and little “t” trauma

Why we’re saying it: This new way of looking at types of traumas can help expand our understanding of trauma, according to Jonen. “Everyone can identify the big ‘T’ trauma—being in combat or experiencing a natural disaster. Introducing little ‘t’ trauma helps us understand that something we wouldn’t traditionally classify as a traumatic event can also cause the same response. Trauma is trauma. If you’ve experienced something traumatic—no matter what the scale—your body, mind, and spirit will react in the same way. It’s important for us in this space to validate that.”

2. Self-care

New language: Self-care

Why we’re saying it: While the concept of self-care has existed for centuries, the term has only recently been co-opted by celebrities, influencers, and the booming wellness industry and is now a full-on movement. In 2017, Apple named self-care as one of its top four breakout trends, citing the sudden spike in apps focused specifically on mental health, stress reduction, and mindfulness (yup—another buzzy word). Self-care, in its best sense, is a tool we can and should harness to help us feel resourced through life’s ups and downs.

“I view life as a continuum of different experiences that don’t necessarily have to be permanent,” says Jonen. “Ultimately, the goal is to help people feel safe and lose any shame about what they’re experiencing so that they’re empowered to make the changes that they want to make.” And yes, that includes ditching plastic straws and bottles.

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Last Updated: Jun 2, 2020