Mental health literacy and the power of words

Mental Health Literacy
Understanding Language

We all have mental health. Talking about what is going on for you can break down stigma in a way that allows others to do so too. That said, it does everyone a favor when you give thought to the words you say. “Language is so important,” says our friend and advisor Dr. Stan Kutcher. “Mental health isn’t this airy-fairy concept of feeling happy and wonderful and positive all the time—not at all. Mental health is the capacity, the competencies, the abilities, the challenges, the opportunities that life gives us.”

TeenMentalHealth.org is determined to spread the word about using appropriate language: “Let’s make sure we are saying what we mean and meaning what we say.” For example, it notes:

• Depression is not the same thing as having a bad day. • OCD is not the same as being organized. • Schizophrenia is not a split personality. • ADHD is not the same thing as being hyperactive. • Bipolar disorder is not the same thing as being moody. • Anxiety disorder is not the same as feeling stressed before an exam.

“When we do not use words that appropriately describe how we are feeling, we run the risk of making light of major concerns,” they warn. “For example, by thinking someone with depression is simply feeling unhappy or dramatizing minor concerns, or by thinking someone who has a bad day has depression.”


Teen Mental Health describes four separate but related components of mental health and suggests clear language for the discussion of each.

No distress, problem or disorder

Useful vocabulary: Pensive, thoughtful.

Mental distress

“The common, expected and normal response to the distresses of everyday life.”

Useful vocabulary: Upset, annoyed, sad, unhappy, disappointed, disgusted, angry, bitter, down, blue, sorry, glum, forlorn, disconsolate, distressed, dejected.

Mental health problem

“The reactions we have to huge life challenges that might task our ability to adapt.” The death of a loved one, for example, or the loss of a relationship.

Useful vocabulary: Heartbroken, sorrowful, demoralized, grieving, mournful, despairing.

Mental disorder/illness

“Mental illnesses—panic disorder or bipolar disorder, for example—require evidence-based treatments provided by properly trained health care providers.”

Useful vocabulary: Depression.

The categories are not mutually exclusive.

Learn more on how language matters from Teen Mental Health