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Language and You. How Labeling Affects Mental Health.

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

By Bart Brewer, NAMI Clackamas Newsletter Editor

This is the first of a multipart series that will explore language, how we use it, and how it can impact the mental health of others. Each article will feature resources, expert opinions, and peer testimony on the subjects at hand.

The purpose of these articles is to act as a resource for those who feel that language has impacted their mental health. However, we also hope that this series will facilitate discussion around the subject of language and language use, and that by the end we will all have a better understanding of one another.

Also look out for this series in an upcoming issue of the Clackamas Review.


Whether we are aware of it or not, we all use labels in our daily lives. This should come as no surprise, as most labels are merely descriptors, words we use to describe who or what something is. Imagine a world without adjectives for a moment, and you’ll realize how reliant we are on labels to describe the world around us.

This is not inherently a bad thing; it’s a part of how we all communicate. The issues start when we begin to label those around us in ways that don’t conform with how those individuals label themselves. Mislabeling, whether it be intentional or unintentional, can have effects on the mental health of those who are mislabeled.

Throughout this article, we will be talking about mislabeling, it’s affects, and how we can better avoid or mitigate this as an issue. This isn’t meant to shame people, rather it’s meant as a resource to inform. From this, I hope that we will discover not only better ways of interacting with people, but also grow a better understanding of one another.

Broadly speaking, we can break down labeling/mislabeling issues into four different groups: Gender specific, racially specific, mental health specific, and personal. While there may be more areas out there, these will be the groups we’ll be looking at.

Mental Health Specific Labels

In the general field of health, we know that certain diagnoses have stigmas that are attached to them. These stigmas can impact a person’s relationships and prevent them from seeking out further care. The same holds true when it comes to mental health.

If I were to, for example, say that someone had OCD, there are no doubt several things that may spring to your mind regarding this condition. These thoughts are likely influenced by the stereotypes that revolve around such a label, and as such will often have negative qualities to them. This can lead someone to then think negatively on the person, as someone who may be weird or dangerous.

Stigmas associated with different mental health diagnoses can have many other affects, such as:

· Lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers or others

· Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing

· Bullying, physical violence or harassment

· Health insurance that doesn't adequately cover your mental illness treatment

· The belief that you'll never succeed at certain challenges or that you can't improve your situation

This kind of thought process leads us away from helping those in need, as these stigmas often drive us to distance ourselves. By using other label that aren’t associated with these kinds of stigmas and stereotypes, or just not using label in these instances all together, people will be more likely to help, and those who live with mental health issues are more likely to reach out. By being more thoughtful in our approach, people who need help are more likely to receive it.

Mental health labels have impacts not only on the outward perception of a person, but also the internal perception of oneself. As we’ve established, mental health diagnoses bring with them multiple stigmas attached to them, which in turn shapes other people’s thoughts. However, they can also shape how we think about ourselves.

When you get labeled with a mental health issue, it becomes easy to internalize the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding that label. As such, it’s easy to become anxious or lose hope since those stigmas often reinforce those negative feelings. This can lead to a downward spiral that can only worsen your mental health.

This is a problem with how we feel the need to label everything. While a problem such as this requires bigger change in how we think, there are ways to mitigate the damage of a harmful label. Detecting yourself from the label, and thus letting go of the stigmas that come with it, is an effective method. If you don’t become associated with the label, then it won’t be able to have the same kind of effect on you.

Often when we discuss people who have mental illness or mental health issues, we forget that they are still a person. That they are more than just their diagnosis. Teri Brister, the NAMI Chief Program Officer, has more than 30 years of experience working in mental health care. She is the author of NAMI Basics and the co-author of NAMI Homefront.

“People are more than their illness,” says Brister. “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.”

You can read the full interview with Teri Brister, which also features several other mental health experts, at this link here.

All too often, we speak about people with mental health issues in this way, even if we aren’t actively aware of it. This is because this way of talking about mental illness is quite ubiquitous in our society, whether it be in mainstream media depictions or news articles talking about it. It has become so ingrained as to be commonplace.

This ties back into what we have already talked about regarding stigmas around mental health, as when we say someone is their diagnosis, we are also essentially saying that they are those stigmas that come with that label. So how can we improve this? Simply put, we shouldn’t let diagnoses and labels blind us from the people behind those labels. We should treat them with the same respect and care in our language as we would with anyone experiencing a physical health issue.

We can see this sentiment for ‘people first language’ echoed by other mental health organizations. Founded in 2001, The Kim Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing awareness around mental health and suicide prevention.

“If each of us takes just a few moments to educate someone, they may do the same the next time they hear someone make the same mistake, and soon a true ripple effect will take place where the only language being used is people-first language.”

When talking about mental health, it’s critical that we observe our own actions, but also the actions of others. Taking time out of your day to correct and educate someone else can go a long way in changing the way we look at mental health as a group.

You can visit The Kim Foundation and read their full article on people first language here.

As we’ve discussed throughout this section, putting people before their labels is key to understanding who they are and the challenges that they face. I can think of no better way to encompass this idea then by sharing a small selection of peer stories that reflect the challenges that labels can place.

Cindy Tillory runs the blog “Late Start,” which focuses on mental health awareness and ways to improve one’s own mental health. She’s worked to let go of the labels that she has been given throughout her life and has experienced firsthand the challenges that come with being labeled.

“I became obsessed with the “schizoaffective” label and began to isolate myself even further from the small pool of people who cared about me,” she says. “Unsurprisingly, this isolation only made my mental health worse.”

In the end, by gaining support from peer groups and re-contextualizing her labels, Cindy was able to take power back from them. “Who we are beyond our appearances, diagnoses and circumstances is far more important than the labels themselves.”

You can read Cindy’s story here.

Brittney grew up thinking that something was “wrong” with her. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she was sure that something to label it would help her “fix” whatever was wrong. However, gaining a label for her issues did little to help.

“For me, these labels represented my shame and the stigma of how others would perceive me. I let those letters degrade my sense of worth.”

It is only through the reframing of these labels that Brittney was able to come to better terms with them.

“Although you may ‘experience’ the feeling of anxiety, you are not the anxiety itself. Making this simple distinction can free you to take charge of your self-image.”

You can read Brittney’s story here.

Next month: Gender Specific Labels

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