Despite how the nursery rhyme goes, words can hurt. They can also be used to reinforce mental health stigma, particularly in crime fiction.
Words are powerful – and “with great power comes great responsibility”. The longevity and influence of words can be epitomised in that one quotation, first used centuries ago and popularised by a comic book adaptation.
Words are the building blocks of the writer’s craft. They are our weapons and our tools. We can fuss for hours over the right choice of word to fit a sentence, a tone, a character. When it comes to fighting mental health stigma, we need to choose our weapons carefully.
The last time I wrote about this, I merely complained that writers should do better. This time, I’m going to do better.
The following words and phrases are all in common usage but have the potential to be harmful to people with mental health problems and reinforce stigma about them. I have here presented alternatives that will convey similar meaning but without the baggage.
NOTE: I have made some assumptions about the intention behind the use of these words. The alternatives will not fit every situation. If you have a question about options in context, please feel free to comment or contact me for suggestions.
The Anti-Stigma Thesaurus
asylum/loony bin noun
mental health unit, psychiatric hospital
capricious, changeable, fickle, flip-flopping, oscillating, unstable
commit suicide verb
complete suicide, die by suicide, kill him/herself, take one’s life
(For more guidance on writing about suicide, see Samaritans’ guidance. For a personal and professional perspective, see this note from Dr Alison Payne in the BMJ.)
1. general use
i. bizarre, eccentric, odd, outlandish, peculiar, strange, unbelievable, unusual, weird
ii. amazing, astonishing, awesome, incredible, outrageous, stunning, unbelievable
2. referring to mental health:
rephrasing is preferable – e.g. “person with mental health problems” or “he has a diagnosis of depression”
(See the “Time to Change” guide to language.)
absurd, nonsensical, ridiculous
exacting, fastidious, finicky, meticulous, neat, tidy
1. general use
violent, unpredictable, unstable, wild
2. crime fiction – referring to a murderer
cold-blooded, cruel, detached, remorseless
idiot, imbecile, moron
(NB: The words I have chosen here are all archaic words for a person with mental health problems, but they have lost that connotation in modern usage)
conflicting, contradictory, incongruous, inconsistent, indecisive
Do you have suggestions for other words to include in this list? Please leave your ideas in the comments.