Why the words we use can mean life or death when it comes to mental health

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — We’ve all heard the saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

Many people feel that if someone is bothered by language, they need to toughen up, but for a lot of people, it's not that easy.

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Channel 9’s Glenn Counts asked four people who know the pain and heartache of substance misuse to write down words that open the floodgates of guilt and shame for them.

We used the word "misuse" instead of "abuse" because it’s more accurate, and it’s not considered a putdown like words such as addict, junkie, dope fiend and drunk.

“Those kinds of hurtful words keep the cycle alive because, what would happen, it would make me feel so bad about myself what I would have to do is drink to make that pain go away," said Roxanne McDonald, who is in long-term recovery.

Mary Ferreri is a counselor at the Emerald School of Excellence, North Carolina’s first recovery high school.

Ferreri said using the wrong words makes people want to hide to avoid being labeled, so they put off seeking help.

"There are too many people dying because they didn't seek help when they needed it, who were ashamed, who were told they were no good, they were bad people," she said.

People facing mental health challenges also have words they'd like to see stricken.

"Mental, looney, cukoo, crazy, deranged, sick," said counselor Dr. Trasha Black.

Black is a counselor with Genesis Project 1.

"We battle shame. That's one of the biggest things that folks work on in therapy is how they see themselves, and all those words that people have used, they stick," said Black.

Now that you know what not to say, what should you say?

  • Never call someone crazy. Instead, you can say they live with or have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder
  • Instead of calling someone an alcoholic or an addict, try saying they're someone with alcohol or drug problems or dependencies
  • Instead of former addict, you can say person in recovery

Taylor Lovallo is currently in recovery and she said labels got in the way of her realizing that she needed help.

"It infuriates me because I'm not a dope fiend, said Lovallo. “I never was a dope fiend. I was a person struggling with substance use disorder."

The words we use are so important, Novant Health produced a video about them.

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"We are trying to do better at understanding addiction as a mental health disorder and to eliminate the stigma that is so often attached to it," said Briget Bridgman, with Novant Health.

Jeff Ptak lost his son Ryan to a heroin overdose three years ago.

"The pot and the drinking sort of morphed into pills, all kinds of pills," said Ptak. “What I've learned since my son passed away back in 2016 is that words matter, and education matters."

Mental health issues are considered a hidden crisis because people don’t talk about it, but when we do, the words we choose matter.