Your Word Choice Matters

News Release
For Immediate Release: 1/31/2024

Alycia Davis, (531) 249-8079,

Lincoln, NE – Even though mental health is key to overall health, the general lack of awareness about what to say or how to help family, loved ones, and neighbors keeps people from seeking treatment. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Division of Behavioral Health (DBH) encourages individuals to be cautious of their word choice and take steps to create a strong and supportive community actively working to stop the stigma around mental health.

“When language surrounding mental health is negative, it can discourage individuals from seeking support and treatment," said Tony Green, Interim Director of the Division of Behavioral Health at DHHS. “Positive language encourages empathy and understanding, creating a safe space and a supportive environment allowing individuals to access the support they deserve when experiencing mental health or substance use challenges."

Use language that acknowledges the person first and not the condition.

Mental defect or diseaseMental health conditionA defect or disease means there is something “wrong" or negative about the person.
Irrational, delusional, insane, psycho, or crazy behaviorUncharacteristic or concerning behaviorThese words are dismissive of the person and are often overused to describe differences in points of view rather than behavior worthy of concern.
Suffering fromDiagnosed withThe word suffering can paint someone as a victim
Committed suicideDied by suicideCommitted is a negative word that recalls legal overtones.
Mental institutionTreatment facilityMental institutions reference outdated treatments.
Schizo or Bipolar  A person with schizophrenia or a person with bipolar disorder.A person is not their disease.
Alcoholic, Addict, Junkie, or UserA person struggling with substance use disorderPerson-centered language shows empathy and reduces stigma and punitive attitudes.
Former or ex-addict or CleanPerson in or maintaining recovery.Person-centered language shows empathy and reduces stigma.


Some suggestions on how to approach someone experiencing a substance use or mental health challenge:

  • Approach the conversation like you would if asking someone about a physical health issue. 
  • Talk to them in a safe and comfortable space. Be respectful, compassionate, and empathetic to their feelings by engaging in reflective listening. It is OK to say, “I am not sure how I can help but I am here to listen". Let them tell their story.
  • Give the individual hope for recovery and offer encouragement. Be a friend.
  • Take a Mental Heal​​th First Aid course or Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) course to increase your awareness of how to help others.

Some things to avoid:

  • Avoid saying “everyone feels that way sometimes" or “you just need to change your attitude".
  • Avoid assuming things about them or their situation. 

Mental health is something that we need to talk about now more than ever. By talking openly about mental health or substance use, educating ourselves, showing compassion, being cautious about the terms and verbiage used, and using positive language, we can contribute to a more compassionate and supportive community that values mental health and treats it with the same importance as physical health.

Need to talk or get immediate help in a crisis? Help is available. If you or a loved one need assistance, please reach out to:

  • The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline; call, text, or chat 988.
  • Nebraska Family Helpline – Any question, any time. (888) 866-8660.
  • Rural Response Hotline, (800) 464-0258.
  • Your faith-based leader, healthcare professional, or student health center on campus.

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