Sticks, Stones and Red Flag Words

Problematic portrayal of 'mental patients' in the media | Source: The Telegraph
Problematic portrayal of ‘mental patients’ in the media | Source: The Telegraph

In a previous post, I talked about how we mistakenly confuse the terms “mental health” and “mental illness.” Unfortunately, these terms have negative connotations tied to them, particularly because of the word “mental” and the stereotypes and assumptions attached to it.

While I touched on this particular briefly in the post, I wanted to explore other red flag words. These words, often related to mental health language, are being used a bit more loosely in everyday conversation. Unfortunately, many of us are desensitized to the use of such words and phrases. We’ve become so desensitized that we propagate negative stereotypes. When these red flag words are actually used in reference to mental health and mental illness, they are often misunderstood. Furthermore, these words can be downright offensive, especially to those who have had to live with a mental illness or mental health issues.

Here are some harmful red flag words and phrases to avoid, which I gathered from different articles (posted in The Guardian and Time to Change) and from experience of hearing or even using them myself. They have been dangerously woven into our daily language and become separated from their actual meaning (especially when used to describe people or situations). Also, I’ve included some alternatives to these words and phrases.

Red Flag Words/Phrases


  • a psycho
  • a schizo
  • a person who has experienced psychosis
  • a person who has schizophrenia
  • a schizophrenic
  • a depressive
  • someone who has a diagnosis of
  • is currently experiencing
  • is being treated for…
  • bonkers
  • crazy
  • insane
  • loony
  • lunatic
  • maniac
  • mad
  • mental
  • nutter
  • retard/retarded
  • spastic
  • unhinged
  • a person [living] with a mental health problem
  • the mentally ill
  • a person suffering from
  • a sufferer
  • a victim
  • the afflicted
  • mental health patient
  • mental health consumer
  • mental health client
  • a person [living] with a mental health problem
  • user of mental health services
  • a person diagnosed with…
  • prisoners (in a psychiatric hospital)
  • inmates (in a psychiatric hospital)
  • patients
  • service users
  • clients
  • released (from a hospital)
  • discharged
  • happy pills
  • antidepressants
  • medication
  • prescription drugs

Other problematic phrases/common mistakes:

  • ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘bipolar’ – should not be used to mean ‘two minds’ or ‘split personality’
  • ‘committing’ suicide – attached to religious and criminal connotations
  • ‘psychotic’ – should not be used to describe an angry individual
  • an individual who is feeling down or unhappy is not the same as a person who is clinically depressed

Of course, those of us dedicated to the mental health movement don’t expect society to simply erase these words and phrases from everyday vernacular and the media. Growing up, I remember being taught the phrase:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

However, I don’t think this holds much truth when it comes to mental health concerns. In a world where it is easy to be hypocritical of society and human error, I firmly believe that it is important that we are mindful of our use of words. While many of us are adults (and have learned a lot since our elementary school days) it isn’t hard to forget that we just might be crossing a line when unintentionally or casually tossing in a red flag word.

A disappointing and stigmatizing caption on Reader's Digest | Source: Hope Persists
A stigmatizing caption on Reader’s Digest November 2013 issue | Source: Hope Persists

The meaning of words change over time. The colloquial use of many of these words are rarely meant to be used in a purposefully hurtful way.

However, if it is within my power to decrease the stigma against those with mental health illnesses or conditions, then I have no excuse to do otherwise. I will certainly take a couple more seconds to pay attention to my diction. After all, my “manic” Mondays are really just “incredibly hectic” Mondays.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Fatima says:

    Wow. This is an awesome and fabulously written post! Thanks.


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