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Certain words and phrases we use to describe mental health are so entrenched in our lexicon that we are unaware of how hurtful they sound. Here are a few to avoid, with suggestions for alternatives.

Crazy, nuts, deranged, insane

Why it hurts: These are derogatory words for a real illness. We do not use similar words for people with heart disease or diabetes.

What’s preferable: Nothing. Please don’t use them.

Mentally ill

Why it hurts: This phrase limits a human being solely to his or her diagnosis.

What’s preferable: A person with a mental illness.

Committed suicide

Why it hurts: Makes a tragedy sound like a criminal act or sin.

What’s preferable: Died by suicide. Took his or her own life.

Try harder

Why it hurts: These illnesses are due to chemical imbalances or neurological disorders. Can you imagine saying the same to someone with cancer?

What’s preferable: “I am sorry you are experiencing this. How can I help?”

Looney bin

Why it hurts: Trivializes treatment centers that can be lifesaving.

What’s preferable: Psychiatric hospital.

Suffering from/afflicted with/victim of

Why it hurts: Connotes pity and doesn’t acknowledge that people can, and do, recover from mental illnesses.

What’s preferable: Has/lives with/experiences a mental illness.

Using bipolar casually

Why it hurts: Bipolar is a serious illness and should be used to refer only to the illness itself.

Sources: Sue Abderholden, NAMI-MN; Mandi Latzke; Associated Press, speakingofsuicide.com

Gail Rosenblum