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Tips For Stigma-Free Communication About Mental Health

Tips for Stigma-Free Communication About Mental Health

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Among healthcare workers, the fear of judgment associated with talking about and seeking behavioral healthcare increases the risk of suicide.1 Staff may avoid taking time for self-care, discussing emotional difficulties, or seeking professional support for a mental health or substance use disorder, for fear of damaging their career or reputation.

Craft your communication in a way that will help to reduce the perceptions of stigma related to experiencing or seeking help for mental health and other conditions. Here are some tips for discussing these topics in a non-stigmatizing way, and may even help to remove the stigma altogether:

Talk about mental health in a straightforward way

Acknowledge mental health challenges as just another part of life that affects most people at some point, like many physical health issues. Directly discussing the topic rather than tiptoeing around it builds a comfort level and makes it easier to seek support.

Lead by example

As a hospital leader, demonstrate non-stigmatizing behavior and language in your own interactions and communication about mental health. Normalize conversations about mental health by sharing your own challenges with burnout. Nine out of ten employees appreciate when their leaders share stories of getting support.2 Take a look at these tips for sharing your story from the Health Action Alliance.

Use respectful and person-first language

A Healthcare Professional

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Choose words and phrases that are neutral, respectful, and non-stigmatizing. For example, don’t use words like “crazy,” “insane,” “junkie,” or “addict.” Avoid labels or stereotypes.

Generally, it’s good practice to use language that emphasizes the person, not the condition. For example, by using phrases like “a person with schizophrenia” rather than “a schizophrenic.” However, there is not always agreement on these terms and some groups prefer condition-first language. The best practice is to engage people from that group to find out what they prefer.3 For more examples, see CDC’s list of preferred terms.

Highlight personal stories

Invite people on your staff to share their stories of experiencing mental health or substance use challenges and seeking care. Avoid inadvertently pressuring anyone to share their story if they are not comfortable doing so.

Avoid reinforcing the idea that a stigma exists

The more we talk about stigma to healthcare workers, even if the message is that we want to reduce it, the more we put its existence on their radar. If someone hadn’t previously felt the stigma, they may then wonder if they should be concerned.

1 American Hospital Association [2022]. Suicide prevention. Washington, DC: American Hospital Association.

2 Health Action Alliance [n.d.]. Workplace mental health: Tips for sharing your story. Los Angeles, CA: Health Action Alliance.

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [2023]. Health equity guiding principles for inclusive communication. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.