Why Inclusive Language is Essential to Our Mental Health

Why Inclusive Language is Essential to Our Mental Health

Language is a powerful instrument with the ability to bring us together – and tear us apart. Our choice of words and how we express ourselves can create friendships and provide comfort, but they can also cause pain, create stigma, and reinforce prejudices in our communities.

Inclusive language puts humanity at the centre, allowing individuals to feel heard, valued, and respected in society. We have created some helpful guidelines that aim to foreground the voices, experiences, and viewpoints of marginalized or stereotyped people and further ingrain the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusivity at EHN Canada.

Talking Mental Health

“How depressing.” “She’s psycho.” Or “That’s crazy.” There is a good chance you’ve heard it or have even maybe said these phrases yourself. They’re pretty normalized in everyday conversation, but it’s important to understand how they contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health, while also trivializing the experiences of those living with a mental illness.

According to CAMH, in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental illness, and by the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have or have had a mental illness.

This means that the people you encounter in your daily life may be dealing with mental illness, and the words you choose when communicating can either contribute to feelings of alienation or empower them on their recovery journey.

Here are some suggestions of language to avoid and language that is encouraged when discussing mental health and mental illnesses:

AddictPerson with a substance use disorder
Substance abuse
Alcohol/drug abuser
Substance use disorder
Someone with a substance abuse disorder
Alcoholic Person with alcoholism
Recovery addictIn recovery
Mentally illPerson with a mental condition
Person with a mental disorder
Person with a mental illness
Person diagnosed with…
A failed attempt at suicideAttempted to take their own life
They are schizophrenicThey are a person with schizophrenia
They are depressedThey have depression
CleanSober, substance-free, drug-free, abstinent 
They suffer from an eating disorder
They are a victim of their eating disorder
They are living with an eating disorder
Insane, neurotic, lunaticPerson with a psychiatric disability or person with a mental illness

Be specific

There are many types of mental illnesses. It’s crucial to avoid general statements that fail to recognize the unique symptoms and treatments that come with different mental illnesses. For instance, instead of saying, “They have a mental illness,” try, “They have bipolar disorder.”

Use person-first language

It can be dehumanizing and disempowering when someone with a mental illness is reduced to their condition. Fundamentally, a person’s mental health condition is just one aspect of their identity, not a defining quality. For example, instead of saying, “That person is mentally ill,” try “They are living with a mental illness.”

Talking Race & Ethnicity

Historically, systemic injustice has created a space for bias and prejudice to permeate everyday language – often in ways that have become so entrenched as to be rendered invisible. However, language that excludes certain groups is intolerant, racist, and encourages stereotypes and bigotry.

While we might not always be conscious of the damage our words can do, especially if we are a part of a group holding power, inclusive language can help create a more welcoming environment for all. As Flanagin A., et al. write, “Inclusive language supports diversity and conveys respect.” The following suggestions on racial and ethnic terminology are intended to help you choose descriptors that affirm related individuals and groups, while also deconstructing exclusive cultural norms and patterns that reinforce unjust power relations in society.

Minority – This term is over-generalizedRacial and ethnic minority/minoritized groups
Marginalized groups
Historically or systematically excluded groups 
Using racial and ethnic groups as nouns (e.g., “Asians,” “Blacks,” “Hispanics,” or “Whites”)Using the adjectival form (e.g., Asian individuals, Black community, Hispanic children, or White patients)
BIPOC – This acronym does not consider the different ways that racialized people experience race and racism
Non-white – This emphasizes the idea of white as a default
Other – This term is often used to describe nonspecific ‘subgroups’ that are too small for meaningful analyses.
Being specific about the racialized or ethnic group you are referring to

Avoid making assumptions

There are numerous customs, traditions, and subcultures among racial and ethnic groups. It’s important to be mindful of the diversity within racial and ethnic identities. Instead of making assumptions, ask them how they identify themselves. For example, not all Indians practice Hinduism.

Talking Sex, Gender, and Sexual Orientation

The terms “sex,” “gender,” and “sexuality” are frequently used interchangeably. However, each of these terms is considerably different from one another, making it incorrect to use them interchangeably.

Sex is a label assigned to us at birth, generally male or female, and is based on your genitals and chromosomes. Some individuals may be intersex, meaning they do not have the biological structure of the male or female body.

On the other hand, gender is a set of socially constructed characteristics of femininity and masculinity. Gender identity refers to how you feel on the inside and how you perform your gender based on what you wear, how you behave, and how you look – all of which, depending on the person, may not align with social expectations about gender.

Lastly, a person’s sexual orientation or sexuality is their innate emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to specific genders (i.e. gay, lesbian, pansexual, heterosexual, etc.)

Use gender-neutral language

Language has the potential to establish a safe and inclusive culture where everyone – no matter their gender identity – feels seen. It’s best to avoid assuming other people’s gender identity and instead ask them how they identify themselves. 

For instance, instead of saying ” Hello sir,” try “Hello” or “Hello, my name is Xay. My pronouns are she/her. How should I address you?”

The following are some examples of gender-neutral language:

Man-madeMachine-made or artificial
Hi guysHi everyone, hi friends, or hi folks
Ladies and gentlemenFriends and folks
PolicemanPolice officer
Husband/wife, girlfriend/boyfriendSpouse/Partner  

For general reference

Although LGBTQ is often used to reference Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and queer communities, a more inclusive term to use is LGBTQIA2S+, which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and Two-Spirited.

Over the years, some language references to people in the LGBTQIA2S+ community have become outdated and offensive. Here are some terms to avoid:

Birth sexAssigned sex or sex assigned at birth
Tranny, transsexual, transgendered, or transvestite Transgender people
Gender identity disorderGender dysphoria
Sex-change operationGender-affirming surgery
HomosexualGay, lesbian
They are in a homosexual relationshipThey are in a relationship
LGBTQIA2S+  lifestyleLGBTQIA2S+ people and their lives

Talking Age

“We need to avoid ‘othering’ language that positions people in different age groups as ‘them’ and not ‘us’,” says Niall Ryan, of the Centre for Ageing Better

Regardless of our age, we have something to contribute and our opinions matter. However, certain language can play a part in encouraging ageism. Ageism can affect people at any point of their lives and take on a multitude of forms, such as discriminatory attitudes, practices, and institutional policies that enable harmful beliefs about various age groups.

Age-inclusive language aims to eliminate bias in discussing different ages and reframe ageist attitudes for an increasingly positive, uplifting, and inclusive environment.

The following are some examples of age-inclusive language:

The elderly, elderly people, aging dependents, seniors, oldie, geriatricOlder adults, older people, or persons over 65 years of age
Emerging adultStudent, young person, or youth
Labels such as Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z, etc…Using birth years to refer to a generation (i.e. people born between 1965 and 1980)

Talking Ability Status

According to The Center for Disability Rights, ableism is any belief or practice that devalues and discriminates against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities. Disability-inclusive language is a vital tool in fighting against ableism by helping eliminate barriers that disadvantage people with disabilities. It is about being human-centred and putting people first. 

People with disabilities should not be viewed as atypical. As the United Nations states, “Persons with disabilities are the same as everyone else in terms of talents and abilities.” Disabilities are a part of human diversity. Therefore, it’s best to avoid statements that sensationalize the lives of people with disabilities. For example, calling someone with a disability “brave” or “superhuman” can come across as condensing.

Here are some suggestions of language to avoid and language that is encouraged when discussing ability, mental, and physical attributes:

Special needs, cripple, handicapped, disabled, spastic, physically or mentally challengedPerson who has a disability or person with a disability
On the spectrumNeurodivergent
Brain damagedPerson with a traumatic brain injury
Wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchairWheelchair user, person in a wheelchair or person who uses a wheelchair
Visually challenged  Visually impaired or person who is visually impaired
Person with hearing loss, hearing impairedPerson who is hard of hearing
Person who is deaf, the deafDeaf person, deaf people
The blindPeople who are blind
Mentally retardedPerson with an intellectual disability
Disabled parking/toiletsDisability accessible parking/toilet

Avoiding Microaggression 

Oftentimes, people don’t realize that they’re using exclusive language towards marginalized groups. Every day, subtle, intentional, and sometimes unintentional instances of exclusive language are referred to as microaggression and can be just as damaging as overt instances of bias, prejudice, and racism. 

The following are some examples of microaggressions:

Where are you from? or Where were you born?You are a foreigner in your own country
Your ethnic/racial identity makes you exotic
I don’t see colourI am denying your racial/ethnic experiences
You people…You don’t belong
Who is the man in the relationship?Your relationship must fall along heteronormative lines
What she’s trying to say is…I do not value her or listen to her

Culturally Appropriative Language

Cultural appropriation is often discussed as something physical, like clothing or a hairstyle. While sometimes not as blatantly obvious, appropriative language can cause harm to other cultures by stripping certain words of their cultural significance. 

Saying “tribe” when referring to a group of people (i.e. friends or family)Friends, group, pals, teamThe word “tribe” was traditionally a pejorative term used by European settlers to refer to Indigenous people.
Spirit animalAnimal I would most like to be or favourite animalIn some cultures and spiritual traditions, a “spirit animal” is seen as a protector through life. Comparing this with an animal you enjoy devalues its significance.
PowwowParty, gathering, meetingA powwow is a celebration that honours Indigenous culture and community.
Ninja Expert, whizIn Japanese culture, ninjas were soldiers who came from lower-class households.
Nitty grittyFundamentals, essential, coreThe phrase “get down to the nitty gritty” came from English slave trade and was used in reference to the worthless debris left on the ship after slaves were evacuated, but it later came to apply to the slaves themselves.

Our Words Matter

When interacting with others, it is important to remember the basics: treat people how you want to be treated. Do your best to be kind and mindful, and communicate without prejudice. By adopting vocabulary that empowers everyone, irrespective of race, gender, sex, age, health, or ability status, we can open new avenues for building meaningful connections and fostering inclusive spaces.

Inclusive language is ever-changing

Language is fluid, constantly evolving in response to social and cultural changes, and inclusive language is built on continuous education, open conversation, and connecting with others.

At EHN Canada, we will work to update this guide with the most recent and suitable terminology. However, the language included in this guide should not be viewed as definite. 

If you have any comments, questions, or concerns, please reach out to Jeremy Houston at [email protected].  


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