4 Language Changes to Make Your Church More Mental Health Friendly

For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
Luke 6:45b

Our words and our thoughts have a circular relationship: the things we believe & think tend to be verbalized, and the things we speak & hear influence the way we think. It's why Luke writes that "the mouth speaks what the heart is full of," and why James equates 'an unbridled tongue' with a 'deceived heart.'

This is why I believe our language is so important, especially in ministry/church settings. The way you talk about things gives people a glimpse into what you actually believe about them. (Tweet) In this vein, here are four ways you can change your language to be more sensitive to the folks around you who are struggling with their mental health.

4. Stop saying "I'm so OCD!"/"I'm so ADD!"/etc.

I can't count the number of times I've heard pastors make jokes like these during a sermon. Aside from being a grammatical nightmare (both those terms are nouns), it diminishes the very real struggle that people diagnosed with those disorders face.

For the record, the DSM-V lists the following as diagnostic criteria for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

So no, you liking things lined up or neatly organized doesn't mean you have OCD. It's a very serious, life-disrupting disorder. The same can be said for every other disorder we use as punchlines.

As someone with serious attention problems I can personally attest: I spent most of my childhood/adolescence getting bad grades despite knowing content, because I simply couldn't focus long enough to turn in most of my homework assignments. I remember having a break down in my mom's car outside a Starbucks during middle school because I felt like such a failure. I just could not understand why I was so bad at school. It wasn't until I was in college that I talked to a Psychiatrist, and being able to name and treat my ADHD has drastically improved my life (this is probably a whole post on it's own.)

As a result, I don't find it particularly funny when you nonchalantly claim you're ADD and yell "SQUIRREL" in mid-sentence.

But this is actually more important than 'I don't find it funny.' When we start claiming disorders we don't have, any understanding of the level of pain caused by the actual disorder is diminished. (Tweet) It gets a whole lot easier to think 'everyone just claims ADD instead of learning basic human skills, it's totally bogus' when people are literally just claiming ADD. This sucks for those who fit actual criteria and are trying their best to manage, only to be told they're just dramatic or a failure.

3. Use intentional language surrounding suicide.

This one is a hard one, because there's a lot of debate even among people who work within the Suicidology and Suicide Prevention communities. But with over 40,000 Americans dying by suicide each year, and an estimated 12 attempts for each death (each of which affects at least 6 other people), the way we talk about suicide matters.

Here are some suggestions from the Hunter Institute of Mental Health's 'Guide for Speaking Publicly About Suicide':

While these may seem like just semantics to you, there are plenty of studies showing how much stigma and shame factor into the isolation of mental illnesses. There's also plenty of evidence that feeling isolated and disconnected plays a major role in suicidal thoughts and actions. The way we think about and talk about suicide is of utmost importance.

I'd also strongly recommend reading Thomas Joiner's Myths About Suicide to make sure you know the facts and aren't spreading harmful myths.

2. Use person-first language.

This is actually the one the most people might be familiar with. I learned about person-first language during my undergrad in my education classes, and from what I can tell, that's pretty common.

The general premise of person-first language is exactly what it sounds: you put the person first.
For example: Instead of 'depressed person,' you'd say 'person with depression.'

This seems like a slight change, but the idea is to emphasize the person first, not use the descriptive word as a definer. There are more examples here, and plenty of other places on the internet. I won't talk too much about this one, because I feel like the concept is a pretty simple one, although it takes some effort and intentionality to become a habit.

1. Talk more about mental health.

I've written this before (and I'm certainly not the only one), but people talk about things when they know it's safe to talk about them. There's a reason I never talked about my depression when I was younger: because no one ever showed me it was ok to talk about. Maybe I could've been the first one to speak up, but that's incredibly hard to do when you're not the one creating the environment.

But people come to your church or ministry to feel welcome and safe. Those are probably words you use in staff meetings, trying to find the words to describe the community you want to have. So why wouldn't you try and create the type of culture where people know that they can be open about their pain, that they can talk about their struggles?

There are few things as powerful as someone telling their own story, and few things as powerful as someone who's 'in charge' admitting they're not perfect. If you're willing to talk about your own mental health (or have someone else do it in a public setting), please do it. The more we accept that these topics aren't taboo and are part of the world we live in (1/5 of Americans battle mental illness in any given year), the more people will be willing to talk openly about it.

This is huge: it lets you love them well by walking with them through something hard.
It creates a community where people lean on each other and accept love more easily.
It allows for people to get the help and treatment they need to be healthy and whole, which is what God wants for us.

And if you think this article is a bunch of PC crap, how about this:

Almost 1 in 5 people say their church's response to mental illness caused them to break ties.

That is, and should be, unacceptable. It's time we fix it.