Words that Heal

Written By: Rachel Pagel, MS, LPC, CSAC, CS-IT

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” never screamed as inaccurate to me in my childhood as it does to me today. We all know that words often hurt worse, they stay with us, they shape us, they change us, or they can be the reason we give up. When it comes to words that help our loved ones overcome the shame and stigma attached to mental illness such as depression, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, or substance abuse issues there are many things to consider:

Use person centered language – A person should never be defined by their illness or disability. Use words and phrases that show that the illness doesn’t define who they are.  Rather than using a label or an adjective to define someone, person centered language puts the person before the diagnosis and describes what the person has (for example, “a person with schizophrenia” or “a person with alcoholism”), not a label of what the person is (for example, “a schizophrenic” or “an alcoholic”).

Share your concerns in a compassionate way – Avoid blaming, yelling, or assuming. Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements and listen to their responses and calmly give feedback. For example: “I notice that you haven’t been getting out of bed at your usual time, is everything ok?” or “I worry about you when you say those things, let’s go talk to someone about it.” Avoid going into your child’s room and yelling at them to get them out of bed, seek to understand through conversation and active listening.

Validate, be understanding, and supportive – Even if you don’t really understand what they are going through avoid saying “get over it, there are others who have it a lot worse than you do!” instead offer them support and encouragement by saying “Have you ever thought about going and talking to someone about what is going on? I am concerned; can I help you find a counselor?” Taking time for someone can go a long way and encourage them to seek support and help.

There are several negative, hurtful responses that are commonly used by others when responding to someone who is struggling with mental health issues, here are a few examples:

  • Will you stop that constant whining?
  • Snap out of it.
  • What makes you think that anyone cares?
  • Haven’t you gotten tired yet of all this me-me-me stuff?
  • You just need to give yourself a kick in the rear.
  • I thought you were stronger than that.
  • No one ever said life was fair.
  • Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
  • You are just looking for attention.
  • Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
  • You have it so good, why aren’t you happy?

Instead, tell your loved one you are there for them, that there is hope, that they are not alone, that you care for them, that you will do the best that you can to understand and that in the end you will all get through this together.

So maybe the quote should be changed to “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can hurt worse, scar deeper, immobilize me, or heal me.” So, choose your words wisely and let the healing begin.