MBTI Wellness – How Inclusive Language Breaks Down Stigma

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MBTI Wellness – How Inclusive Language Breaks Down Stigma

January 21, 2021

Language is a powerful tool which allow us to communicate with others and shapes our perception of the world. In turn, language also impacts the way we view ourselves and others.

According to statistics from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 1/5 Canadians live with a mental illness or addiction. Despite this prevalence, almost 40 per cent of workers say they still fear telling people that they have a mental illness.

Now more than ever, it’s important to understand the role our own language plays in the lives of others and how words can contribute to the enduring stigma surrounding mental illness. By adapting our language to reflect the complex nature of a person’s mental health condition, we can create a more supportive community for all.


How Do We Combat Stigma?

The first step to creating a more inclusive vocabulary is to understand what kinds of language perpetuates stigma in the first place. Stigmatizing language is any phrase (intentional or unintentional) which:

  • Marginalizes a person’s mental health condition
  • Makes assumptions about a person based on their mental illness
  • Dehumanizes a person by equating their identity with their illness
  • Discourages someone from talking about their illness or from seeking out help (suggesting a person should hide or be ashamed)


How Do We Make Adjustments to Our Vocabulary?

1. Start With Person-First Language

One of the best ways to create more inclusive, unbiased conversations is by using person-first language when discussing mental illness.

For example, instead of saying “a depressed person” or “substance abuser”say “a person experiencing depression” or “a person living an addiction.” This acknowledges the human element of a person’s identity and supports the idea that their illness does not define who they are.


2. Don’t Put Others Into Boxes

The media we consume can narrow our perception of mental illness based on the way certain characters are represented. Films, TV shows, news broadcasts, books and art can all reinforce negative stereotypes of people living with mental illnesses which don’t fully encompass a person’s set of unique traits.

Not all swimmers are divers, not all musicians are singers and not all Canadians speak French. In the same way, not all people living with a mental illness are the alike – and therefore shouldn’t be treated as if they are.


Here are some common myths of mental illness to watch out for:

  • People with mental illnesses are criminals
  • People with mental illnesses are insane / violent
  • People with mental illnesses are fragile
  • People with mental illnesses are bad parents / bad employees
  • People with mental illnesses aren’t cut out to be leaders
  • A mental illness is just used as an excuse for bad behaviour


3. Eliminate Language Equating Mental Illness With Weakness

Mental illnesses are complex and diverse – each with their own range of symptoms. While some days can be harder than others, many people have ways to control and combat their illness in positive ways and continue to lead vibrant lives.

Phrases like “struggling,” or “suffering from” mental illness isn’t always an accurate representation of a person’s experience. Saying someone “lives with a mental illness” is more inclusive.

Likewise, when referring to topics like suicide, avoid using phrases like “committed suicide,” or “successful/unsuccessful suicide,” as these can cast judgement on the act. Instead use “attempted suicide” or “died by suicide” to show respect.


By making these small changes, we can all work to break down stigma and normalize mental illness here in Canada.

For more resources on the impacts of language and perception of mental illness visit CAMH’s website.