How to Talk About It!

We know that talking about mental illness and addiction is important for breaking down stigma and helping people find the help that they need. It is also important to know how to talk about it. When we use stigmatizing words like “wacko” or “tweaker” we reinforce the shame and silence and make it more difficult for people to reach out. So, how can we learn to talk about mental health and addiction in a way that helps break the silence and the shame?

Be positive. Respond to people with mental illness or addiction challenges as individuals. Learn about the person and deal with him/her on the basis of what you learn, not what you assume.

Learn. The more you know, the more you can help. Listen to people with mental illnesses and addictions. Understand they have the same basic needs and human rights as everyone else. Education is the key to eliminating stigma and discrimination.

Change your language. Words shape perceptions. Describe the person first, not the illness. (For example, Sue is “a person living with schizophrenia,” or “a person who has schizophrenia”; not “a schizophrenic.”) The illness is only part of who that person is. Avoid using disparaging language - "lunatics," "crazies," “druggies,” “tweakers,” etc. -- when referring to people with mental illnesses or addictions.

Support people. Support the efforts of people with mental illness and addiction challenges to re-enter society, to obtain meaningful work, and decent affordable housing. Give people recovering from a mental illness and addiction what they need most: a chance.

Speak up! Don't be afraid to let others know of your mental illness or addiction. As long as they remain hidden, many people will believe it to be a shameful thing that needs to be concealed. Speaking up about mental illness and addiction can be empowering for individuals and help them relieve the "internalized stigma" they feel.

Advice for helping others

Seeking help for yourself, friends or family members is an important undertaking. It can often be scary, confusing, and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many ways to get information and find help for your loved ones, and people in your community.


When you reach out to others to offer your support, remember:

  • Express your concern and sympathy.
  • Ask for more details about the person's diagnosis and how he or she is managing. Really listen to the answers and continue the conversation. Make sure your friend understands that you honestly care.
  • Ask what you can do to help. You can leave this open-ended, or you can suggest specific tasks that might help your friend in his or her specific situation. Rides to medical appointments (or keeping the person company in the waiting room) can ease some of the anxiety and reluctance that people feel when faced with a life-changing diagnosis.
  • You might also offer to help your friend with errands, but be careful not to patronize or make the person feel disempowered.
  • Reassure your friend that you still care about him or her, and be sure to include him or her in your everyday plans--going out to lunch, catching a movie, taking a jog. If your friend resists these overtures, reassure and re-invite without being overbearing.
  • Remind your friend that mental illness is treatable. Find out if he or she is getting the care he or she needs. If not, offer your help in identifying and getting the right kind of care.
  • If a friend is having a psychiatric emergency, ask them what kind of help they need and respond immediately. It is important to give them hope and encourage them to seek support, including calling a crisis line, or the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1.800.273.TALK (8255).
  • Immediate medical attention is also in order if somebody you care about is very weak or ill from an eating disorder.

From the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) initiative, "What a Difference a Friend Makes"

Seeking Help for Others

Seeking help for yourself, friends or family members is an important undertaking. In order for you to confidently look for help, get the facts first. Here is a way for you to break down the process:

  • Read about it
    Identify symptoms and do some research
  • Talk about it
    Talk with your friend or family member
  • Find out about it
    Find what resources best match the situation you are in
  • Talk about it some more
    Continue to talk with the family member or friend you are advocating for because this is a journey to recovery

Campaign Partners

Folk Time        Pamplin Media Group        Clackamas County Health, Housing and Human Services