How to talk about mental health, according to the experts

Breaking down stigmas around mental health

Last Updated Oct 22, 2019 3:42 PM EDT

"CBS This Morning​" will be dedicating most of its broadcast on Wednesday, October 23, to a live special focusing on mental health. It's called "Stop the Stigma: A Conversation About Mental Health​." We want to remove the shame and blame from the discussion around mental illness diagnoses.


When talking about mental health, language matters. About 47.6 million adults in the United States had mental illnesses last year, and an estimated 10.7 million adults had serious thoughts of suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

We spoke to three experts – a board-certified psychiatrist, a mental health advocate, and the former president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) – about some of the do's and don'ts when talking to or about people who have experienced mental illness.  

Here are some of their most important takeaways:

DO use language that's in line with medical conditions

Mental illnesses are medical illnesses, former APA president Dr. Carol Bernstein tells "CBS This Morning." "The language and the terminology should be the same," she says.  
 
Additionally, don't refer to people as their illnesses by saying someone is schizophrenic, someone is bipolar, or someone is mentally ill, says Teri Brister of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
 
"We don't use those words because people are more than their illness. We would never say 'Teri is cancer' or 'Teri is breast cancer.' You would refer to someone who has bipolar disorder or someone who has schizophrenia," says Brister.

DON'T use the word "suffering"; DO say "living"  

Instead of saying someone is "suffering" from clinical depression, say he or she is "living" with depression. That's because the person may not be "suffering" all the time from a mental health condition, Brister says.

"Suffers is something that we've moved away from because it implies that it's more melodrama maybe than is necessary," Brister explains. "It very much depends on where people are with their journey. You can't assume you know how somebody's doing."

"The idea is that you can live a meaningful life if you had any sort of chronic illness," psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma adds. "Like if somebody had rheumatoid arthritis. Yes, you could say suffering, but that usually implies maybe like a greater level of severity because the person is not always suffering all the time."

DO say "died by" or "death by" suicide; DON'T say "committed" suicide 

"Committed" suicide sounds like a crime, Varma says. "I think that there's a certain amount of blame or action involved. Like that they're in charge, that they did something wrong," Varma advises.

"If you look at it like cancer and that somebody fought a battle and they tried, and in the end, the disease or the illness took over, rather than the person's moral failure and inability to sort of persevere or outdo those thoughts," she added.

Bernstein agreed, saying, "You wouldn't say somebody committed hypertension or committed cancer."

DON'T use the word "issues"

"Issues" trivializes what's going on, Brister says.

"Issues implies that it's something people choose to do. It kind of connects it to being a character flaw, or something that somebody has chosen rather than there actually being a condition or disorder or an illness that's at the base of the behavior," she says.

DO ask open-ended questions and follow their lead

When checking in on people with mental health disorders, Varma suggests asking neutral, open-ended questions that come from "a place of curiosity and compassion."

"Ask them, 'How are you feeling?' 'How are you dealing with this?' 'How are you coping?' And treat them as much as possible as you would anybody else," Varma advises. She also says if someone is telling you how they're feeling, avoid talking about your own experiences.

Additionally, follow the person's lead on how much they want to talk, Brister suggests.
 
"Be open to meeting people where they are. If they're forthcoming and want to talk about what's going on with them, listen attentively, respond empathetically, but don't ask prying questions. You don't want to be the one who is digging," Brister says.

DO engage

Engaging people impacted by mental illness is important, Brister says.

"Mental illnesses and mental health conditions are not 'casserole illnesses.' If something happens to you — you break your leg, you have surgery, you have a baby — the world wraps around you. But when your neighbor finds out that your child's been, or that you've been admitted to a psychiatric facility, they don't know what to say to you. They don't know whether to say anything at all," Brister added.

Varma recommends spending time with the person, even if it's just sitting with them or going for walks.

"There's so many ways to show someone help and support that don't involve magical conversations or like really eloquent, articulate dialogue," Varma advises. She also says it helps to be consistent and reliable.

DO help them get help

"No matter how much you love them and care for them, and even if you use the right language and all of those — if they're not getting help, they're never going to get better," Varma recommends.