How Language Can Be Hurtful To People With Mental Illness



“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me,” the saying goes. Supposedly, this appeared in a Christian publication written in 1862.

Ah, 1862!

* Sigh of nostalgia *

The second year of the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s second year in office. The year London’s Westminster bridge first opened. (At this point I’m hoping Wikipedia isn’t lying to me).

Trawling through the history books — cough Wikipedia cough — however, I can’t find anything on 1862 being the year of profound mental health breakthroughs.

In fact, I’m wondering if the term mental health had even been uttered by that time.

So. In 2018, given all that we’ve learned since then, let’s have another look at that saying. “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” I mean, yes. We agree on that one. I imagine being bludgered with a pretty hefty log would break a bone or two.

“But words will never break me.”

Um. Ok. Now we disagree.

Ask any child or adult what the worst part of their day was and I’ll hedge my bets that they wouldn’t say it was when they stubbed their toe or scraped their arm. No, they’d be more likely to recall a scenario in which they felt insulted.

Or humiliated. Or ashamed.

We’ve all felt that way at one time or another.

It might have been when you weren’t allowed to sit with the cool kids at school, or when everyone got invited to that happening party except you.

It might have been when you came out and someone stopped wanting to hang out, or even when a co-worker pointed out that big spot on your chin when you were in a meeting with your whole team.

The truth is that, unlike what we've been told, sometimes the bite can sting more than the bark.

It comes from an evolutionary need inside us all to feel a sense of belonging. In our ancestral times, if you were outcast from the pack, you had nothing but a bleak end to look forward to.

Cheery, I know. But this need to belong to a community persists in us today.

So when someone says something that makes us feel like we’re becoming that outcast, put simply, it hurts.


I got my diagnoses in 2016. It was pretty revelatory. Suddenly I entered a world I didn’t realise I was a part of. I learned about my conditions, went through a ton of therapy, made some lifestyle changes, found medication that works for me, and frankly got a lot better.

Sounds awesome, right? It is, and I’m proud of where I am with it all now. It’s not perfect, but it’s a work in progress, which is far better than where I used to be.

However, that all came after six years of living with sub-par mental health, without even realising it.

I didn’t know about the form of OCD that I got diagnosed with (Pure O). Literally, I didn’t even know it was a thing.

I also hadn’t ever heard about how anxiety affects people, what a panic attack feels like, or the warning signs to look for in yourself.

My life wasn’t too dissimilar from most other middle-class Londoners. I was holding down a job, an active social life, occasional exercise, family time. You know, the usual stuff. But life keeps you busy, right?

Especially thanks to things like Instagram, Spotify, and Candy Crush (is that still a thing?). When we’re not busy living our lives, we’re then busy keeping ourselves busy from living our lives.

That’s a lot of business.

The truth is that days like R U Ok? day are important for no reason less than the fact that people are sharing their stories. The more we tell them, the more people will know about mental health.

But what we need to make sure we do with that information is to then use it to ask ourselves if we are ok. Then, once you too have gotten to a place where you feel comfortable opening up, that’s when you’ll be able to reach out for the help that you need like I did. Whatever that help is for you.

It’s amazing to live in a time where people want to look out for each other. Really, it is. But doesn’t everyone also deserve to look after to themselves too?

(That’s a rhetorical question…The answer is most definitely yes).

Words can be powerful. I work as a journalist, so I have to believe that, if only to validate my own career choices!

Rosey Ellum is the co-founder of a UK-based campaign called Stop Funding Hate, which aims to highlight the media’s influence over often hurtful and hateful journalism.

“I think newspapers have been doing the same thing for a long time,” she told me when I got to interview her. “Using speech, language, headlines and stories to divide people and turn them against each other.”

It’s easy to see why Rosey wanted to start her campaign. Every sort of minority is a target to the media.

But as those of us belonging to these minorities know, discriminatory language — language that makes you feel like an outsider from the group — is not just limited to newspapers.

People of colour have long been referred to by many words that most of us were brought up not to say. The LGBTQ+ community are in the process of reclaiming the word “queer” after its degrading and humiliating historical meaning.

And, as with the case with mental health, sometimes it’s not the obviously hurtful words that strike a chord. Often it can be the other words, the every day ones too.


I try not to say the words “love” or “hate” willy nilly.

I realized recently that I had started to become lazy with my language. Nonchalantly I would proclaim my love for everything from cake to yoga, and my hate for marmite and cloudy days.

But love and hate, these are strong words we’re talking about here! And there I was using them as quick alternatives because I couldn’t be bothered to figure out exactly what I was trying to say.

Stop overthinking it, right? People know what you mean.

But therein lies the problem; we often use socially accepted alternatives of language, which don’t correspond to the meaning we’re trying to convey.

The danger is that sometimes the language we choose to use instead can actually be perceived as offensive, which I believe is the case with mental health.

Perhaps one of life's more cruel realities is that we never wholly empathise with something unless we can personally relate to it.

As someone who has been subjected to the struggles of at least a couple of the world’s minorities, I don’t think you can fully understand the rights you’re fighting for until you’ve experienced a life without them.

I’ve been suffering from mental illness for eight years now, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I got formally diagnosed with OCD and generalised anxiety disorder. Once that happened, suddenly I began to flinch every time a friend disclosed the details of a ‘mental’ night out, or talked about a ‘crazy’ person they’d seen on the bus.

I’ve been that ‘crazy’ one on the bus when I’ve been in the throes of a panic attack. I’ve felt ‘mental’ when my intrusive thoughts were all that I could think about.

Because of the language I was encountering on a daily basis, I was starting to feel like that outsider. The one excluded from the pack. The one that might not make it.

While hurtful language persists, to tell us that only sticks and stones will break our bones is, well, just a bit condescending. Essentially, you’re telling us to grow thicker skin.

Suffering from a mental health condition is horrible; it makes you question yourself, it makes you question your sanity, it makes you question your value as a person. That’s why it’s imperative that we don’t trivialise and downplay the impact that these words carry.

Because when you’re talking about mental health, the wrong choice of word might just be the thing that breaks someone, not just the sticks and the stones.

Of course, simply changing the words we use is not enough to shatter the ever-persisting stigma attached to mental health. Vigorous attention and effort remains to be put into the fight for more awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental health.

But, I think it’s a jolly good start.