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Deborah Wiig
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The language of mental health
Words we like - words we hate

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This is a look at the words used to describe people who are living with a psychiatric disorder and the words we use to describe ourselves. We're comfortable with some of them; others are like fingernails on a chalkboard. Most of us say labels shouldn't be used at all, but identifying words are often necessary.

Here are responses to some of these words from people living with disorders as well as mental health advocates.

I am a…

Bipolar victim is the term used by the author of a new book on bipolar disorder who refers to these victims' loved ones as "co-victims."

  • “I hate this. We are not victims but rather courageous people living with highly challenging illnesses.”

Consumer is the term used by both NAMI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Department of Health and Human Services: SAMHSA and other organizations.

  • "To me, a ‘consumer’ is someone who purchases something and what we purchase are doctor visits, therapy sessions and medications. Yes, this is where my money goes, but the term doesn't relate to who I am or how I live."
  • "I hate this one the most. It doesn't do anything for my self esteem or how others see me."

Closeup of man's mouthThe depressive is discussed in a popular book about living with those who "suffer from" a mood disorder. Loved ones are identified as "co-sufferers."

  • "No, I'm not my disorder."
  • “Sometimes living with my disorder is a challenge; sometimes it's not. And my supportive significant other does not consider himself a ‘co-sufferer’."

People with an anxiety disorder

A person diagnosed with…

  • "This is good language for me."
  • "Being diagnosed puts the onus on the physician - and it could be wrong."

Someone who has a brain disease/mental illness.

  • "I prefer disorder; disease sounds like someone else could catch it from me."
  • "When people are identified only in terms of disease, they begin to identify themselves that way. Then they lose their sense of self-reliance, their sense of self."

Someone with a behavioral disorder.

  • “I behave badly? That's my problem?”




Closeup of woman's mouthSomeone who has a brain/mental/psychiatric disorder

  • "Psychiatric disorder is fine with me because everyone knows what it means. I prefer psychiatric diagnosis. Mental disorder is OK but not great; ‘mental’ has stigmatizing connotations but everyone knows what you mean."
  • "I prefer brain disorder…'mental illness' has too many negative connotations and bipolar disorder is misunderstood. Mood disorder is not too bad."

Survivor is the way the publisher of a web site covering bipolar disorder issues refers to herself.

  • "No - It's a journey. We're continuing."
  • "In my opinion, one doesn't survive BP - you live with it."

Those who live with… (i.e. mood and anxiety disorders) is the term usually used by Moodletter.

  • "This is much more recovery focused."

Avoiding labels:
Depression and Bipolar Alliance
does an admirable job of crafting information in a way that avoids the need to identify. When pressed, they use phrases like: "What friends and family can do: Help people identify things they enjoy." But, in any other context, ‘people’ wouldn't work.

  • "I wish we didn't use labels, but there are contexts in which some kind of identifying term must be used, for instance: A support group for… and their friends and family members. It’s necessary to identify who the support group is for.”  


More articles

Comments were contributed by
C.F., support group coordinator; a person living with bipolar disorder
J.M., doctor, author, speaker and a person living with bipolar disorder
K.W., a person living with bipolar disorder
MB, leader of an advocacy organization; a person living with schizophrenia
M.P., a person living with a brain disorder.



Page updated 2014.