Our culture has come a long way on the road to recognizing and overcoming mental illness, but there’s still much work to do to improve overall understanding and acceptance. With 43.8 million adults in the United States suffering from mental illness in a given year, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

There isn’t much the average person can do about curing or treating mental illnesses, aside from donating to mental health organizations, but you can make a difference by changing how you choose to talk about mental illness. Whether it’s a single person having a casual conversation with another, or a journalist publishing an article for millions of people to read, we need to improve how we talk about mental illness—and fortunately, there are some actionable steps we can take to do it.

The Dangers of Inappropriate Conversations

What’s wrong with the way we talk about mental illness?

  • Inaccuracies and misconceptions. People often speak of mental illnesses based on what they perceive them to be, which doesn’t always align with the latest medical consensus. This is how misconceptions circulate and lead people to incorrect understandings of even the most basic, common mental illnesses.
  • Stigmatization. Pejorative and dismissive language can make anyone with a mental illness feel stigmatized, but even an incorrect word choice or condescending tone can contribute to that stigma. Cultural stigmas make people hide their symptoms, and may make them reluctant to seek the help they need.
  • Seriousness. A casual tone or joking demeanor can make light of a serious illness. We don’t treat mental illnesses like physical illnesses; casting mental illness in an inappropriate light can make that even worse.
  • Blame and attribution. We also have a tendency to use mental illness as an easy and general target, such as blaming mental illness for incidents of mass violence - which is counterproductive, and leads to public misunderstandings.

How to Improve

So what can we do to improve?

1. Be open. Try to be as open as possible, in every sense of the word. Don’t be shy about talking about mental illness; be direct when talking about it. Try not to form assumptions or preconceived notions about how mental illness works, and welcome other people to the conversation.

2. Educate yourself before speaking. As much as possible, try to educate yourself before speaking on a given topic, or at least admit a degree of uncertainty if you aren’t sure about a topic. There are many resources available to learn more about mental illness, including MentalHealth.gov and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

3. Show compassion. Regardless of whether you’ve experienced mental illness yourself or you’ve never had a personal experience with it, show compassion for the people who are suffering from it. Compassion reduces the stigma associated with mental illness, opening the conversation so it can go more places.

4. Address misconceptions. When you see someone cite a fact or state an opinion that isn’t accurate, speak out against it. There’s no need to be confrontational, but there’s no reason to allow a misconception to form other people’s opinions. Cite a valid resource, if you can, and be polite; this is a mutual education process, not an argument.

5. Watch your tone and word choices. Exert control over the tone of your voice when writing. Being argumentative, dismissive, or condescending can close people out of the conversation entirely—even if what you’re saying is accurate. Everyone should be a part of the conversation, so a negative tone will only work against you.

6. Understand mental illness isn’t black-and-white. Few things in the world of mental illness are black-and-white issues; most mental illnesses aren’t perfectly understood, and most topics have room for subjective opinions. Try not to categorize things too concretely and remember that the scientific consensus may evolve.

7. Listen more than you speak. Finally, try to sit back and listen more than you speak; even if you’re an expert on the subject, hearing other perspectives and stories will always lead to a higher understanding than just preaching what you already know.

If we all chose to follow these simple rules for talking about mental illness, we’d create a more welcoming, understanding environment for everyone currently suffering from mental illness, and we’d facilitate better understanding throughout the entire population. Small changes, when accumulated, result in a big impact.

Author's Bio: 

My name is Jessica and I am an independent journalist, freelance blogger, and technology junkie with a passion for music, arts, and the outdoors. One of my greatest passions and joy is assisting communities and business owners. My utmost desire is to help people and business owners to succeed and prosper in their personal and business affairs. I share, comment, write and edit popular news stories.