Language in Mental Health for Kids: Why Is It Important to Watch Our Words?

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The words we choose to use are important. Words can shape the way we see the world around us, other people, and ourselves. Words have the power to bring positivity, hope, and empathy – but also shame, stigma, and discrimination. 

Over time, societies and communities develop common ways of speaking about certain topics. We’re inclined to use the same words as one another and describe concepts in the same way. Sometimes, the common language we develop can be positive, and other times, it can be harmful.

Mental health has been stigmatised in our societies for generations, and people with mental illness have been discriminated against and devalued.

This stigma has permeated into the language that we use to describe mental health. Many words that are still common in everyday language are stigmatising, condescending, or isolating for people with mental illness.

This means that we have to think about the words that we use. We need to stop using words that reinforce stigma and start using words that convey dignity, empathy, and hope. 

Using positive language helps young people with mental health disorders to feel included in society and understand their self-worth.

It also makes it easier to access treatment and to reach out to other people for support. At the same time, it affects the way society views people with mental illness, challenging stigma and discrimination in its many forms.

What Happens When We Hear a Word?

When we encounter a word, our brains quickly and effortlessly produce ideas related to that word, and these ideas trigger even more ideas. These ideas come from memories of external events and internal emotions that we have experienced in the past.

As we experience more things, the connections in our brains between words and certain ideas, become stronger. This means that a word triggers these ideas more quickly than others.

When a young person hears a word, it can make them feel alone, dehumanised, or ashamed. Other words may make them feel included, valued, and respected. We can choose which words we use – and the words that we choose matter.

How Should We Speak About Mental Health?

Certain ways of speaking about young people’s mental health can make them feel alienated and isolated. These words can also cause other people to alienate or isolate them and contribute to stigma and discrimination. 

For example, saying that a young person is a victim or suffering from a mental illness suggests that they don’t have a good quality of life or that recovery isn’t possible.

Many young people live vibrant and fulfilling lives despite having a mental health disorder, and most people who receive treatment will recover fully. It’s better to use the phrases living with or having a diagnosis of a mental illness.

Equally, we should not use words that have developed negative connections like neurotic or psychotic or words that sensationalise mental illness like nutter, mad, or psycho. These words are discriminatory, isolating, and stigmatising. 

It’s also important to avoid describing unusual behaviour with words like mental or insane. Using these words misrepresents what mental illness is and leads to stigma and misunderstanding.

Language and Self-Worth

Language that is alienating or discriminating can damage young people’s self-worth. It can cause them to become isolated and disconnected from others. They may feel ashamed, invaluable, and not worthy of support.

These experiences in themselves are damaging are harmful to a young person’s quality of life, well-being, and development. But they can also make it harder for them to reach out for help and receive the support that they need.

They may hide their experiences of mental illness from other people or stop asking for help. They may also be discouraged from seeking therapy and other professional treatment that can treat mental health disorders.

Language and Stigma

The language we use also affects how other people and broader society understand and perceive people with mental illness (which again affects how they feel about themselves).

Stigmatising language can cause people to avoid people with mental illness, leading to loneliness and isolation. It can also cause misconceptions about mental health disorders and stop people from making the effort to develop an accurate understanding of different mental illnesses.

This makes it more likely that adults or other young people will respond to young people with mental illness in an unhelpful way – and less likely that they will provide effective support.

Language can also perpetuate stigma within mental health services, affecting the quality of care that young people receive. Stigma and misunderstanding can cause misconceptions among healthcare professionals that it’s difficult to recover from a mental illness or to live a fulfilling life.

These prognoses can be very disheartening for a young person to hear. In reality, most people recover from mental health disorders, especially if treatment starts early.

Conversations About Eating Disorders

Eating disorders and disordered eating behaviours are becoming more and more common among young people. Eating disorders usually begin during adolescence, but they can start earlier.

When speaking about eating disorders, we need to be careful with the words we use, as we do with mental illness in general. Certain language can alienate young people, increase stigma, or inadvertently contribute to disordered eating. 

It’s important not to use language that places a value judgement on appearance. Words like ‘thin’, ‘skinny’, ‘healthy’, and ‘obese’, can increase the risk of disordered eating in young people who are vulnerable.

Comments on a young person’s appearance – even when complimentary – can also be damaging. It’s better to use language that doesn’t focus on appearance, size, weight, and shape and to value a young person’s personality, accomplishments, and the way they treat others.

We should also avoid language that could suggest eating disorders are glamorous or a viable option for coping with other issues. Phrases like unsuccessful pursuit or successful pursuit (e.g. of an ideal body shape) can validate disordered eating behaviours of underlying thinking patterns. Instead, use simple language without value judgements.

Person-First and Identity-First Language

Person-first and identity-first language are two different ways to speak about mental health conditions.

Person-first language uses phrases like “they have a mental disorder” or “they live with a mental health disorder”. It focuses on young people’s abilities rather than the challenges they face. It respects and acknowledges that a young person is, foremost, a person, and that their mental health disorder makes up only one part of their identity.

Person-first language always puts the person first and may only speak about a mental health disorder when it’s necessary.

Some other examples of person-first language include:

  • ‘they experience symptoms of depression’ rather than ‘they are depressed’
  • ‘they experience anxiety’ rather than ‘they are anxious’

Person-first language helps many young people feel respected and valued for all of their strengths, needs, and experiences, rather than being defined by a mental disorder.

Some young people, however, may say that their mental health disorder is a central part of their identity. They may feel like it shapes the way that they perceive and interact with the world rather than viewing it as an impairment. Managing a mental health disorder can also take time and energy, and some young people may want this to be acknowledged. 

Letting Young People Choose

Most of the time, person-first language is preferred when we’re talking about mental disorders. However, we should always put the preferences of the person we’re talking about first.

If a young person prefers to use identity-first language, we should do so. Remember that neither person-first nor identity-first language is always right or wrong, and if you are unsure, you can ask.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Mental Health Treatment for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist recovery programs for teenagers and adolescents, making a difference in the lives of young people.

Our expert-led programs set the global standard for youth mental health care, drawing on experienced professionals from around the world to deliver exceptional clinical care and medical support.

We combine clinical modalities with education, social responsibility, and a gap year experience, helping young people build a strong and stable sense of self that underpins resilience and accomplishment in the years to come.

Situated in the incredible landscapes of Malaysia, our centre offers unequalled opportunities for enriching experiences and personal growth.

Young people learn about different cultures, perspectives, and ways of seeing the world. They can explore new life paths, rediscover old passions, and reconnect with themselves.

If you are interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here to make a difference.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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