Does It Matter What We Say?

Janet Coburn
4 min readApr 30, 2023

Words matter. I preach that all the time. Language is what gives our thoughts reality and how we make essential connections. Ideas become more concrete when they have words attached to them. It’s hard — perhaps impossible — to convey a thought without language of some kind. And how we use words is dependent on how and what we think.

Words matter. Think about how the terms “rioters” and “protesters” reveal a person’s opinions about the motivations of the people in the “mob” or “crowd.”

Words matter. Our community has been pushing back against words such as “psycho” and “crazy” when it comes to referring to people who need psychiatric help. Many people are gradually realizing that such words are equivalent to slurs and are no longer acceptable. (Except in the aftermath of violence, of course. Then, those terms are tossed around indiscriminately.)

Words matter. But how do we in the community refer to ourselves? What words are advocates using? And how do we want the general public to refer to psychiatric problems?

I’ve written before about the terms “behavioral health” (bad) and “mental illness” (better). But what’s best? Increasingly, the words du jour are “brain illness” and “brain disease.” We’re watching linguistic change in action.

But linguistic change happens at a glacial pace. Words that were used in Elizabethan England are still used today. Think about all the words and phrases that Shakespeare invented that are still used today, and with the same meanings — unreal, lonely, and green-eyed (as in jealousy), for example.

Linguistic change, on the other hand, also happens blindingly fast. Slang, tech terms, and jargon in particular appear and disappear in the blink of an eye (as it were). Think about the terms that refer to female beauty. There were times when “phat,” “fresh,” and “fly” were all applied to women. (Yes, I’m dating myself. I don’t even know what the current term is, but I bet it’ll be gone next month. At least I know that “fire” has replaced “awesome,” “boss,” and “da bomb.”)

So, where are we in the (something) community now that we’ve left “behavioral health” behind? “Mental health” was the clear frontrunner for a time. Then it was “mental illness,” then “serious mental illness.” Now the term being put forward is “brain illness” — or even “brain disease.”

I’ve talked about the implications that various words have. What are the connotations of the new terminology? “Mental illness,” as opposed to “mental health,” drives home the point that “mental health” is a euphemism. It’s not health that’s the problem — it’s the opposite of health. “Brain illness,” as opposed to “mental illness” says that the problem is not in the mind, it’s in the brain.

I think that’s a tough concept for the general public to take in. To most, the mind and the brain are synonymous. Whether that’s accurate or not is hard to say. It’s true that the brain is the physical embodiment of thought, emotion, and cognition. These things can’t exist separate from the brain. They are so intertwined that it’s hard to think of one without the other — especially for laypeople.

But “mental illness” implies that the mind — the thinking — is what is disordered. “Brain illness,” on the other hand, says that the problems lie in the functioning — the physical structure — of the brain. In my opinion, it’ll be tough sledding to make the public understand the sometimes subtle difference between the two.

Recently I saw an online post that decried the fact that advocates and professionals aren’t yet using the terms “brain illness” and “brain disease.” And there’s some truth in that. My own therapist doesn’t. But practitioners are engaged in dealing with the general public as well as those in the community. There’s something to be said for addressing those people in language they understand better. There’s the possibility that when hearing “brain disease,” most people will think “brain tumor” rather than what we are really talking about. And there’s the problem with the slowness of linguistic change.

Words matter. But so does the speed of change. Of course, if we want to change the dialogue, we need to use more accurate terms to promote our message. But it’s probably too soon to expect everyone to be on board. I’m not saying that we should give up on the process of fostering change. I am saying that we shouldn’t be beating each other up for not yet having made that progress, even among ourselves. It’s a process, and not everyone progresses at the same rate.

Incremental change is better than none. Indeed, unless you’re talking about a fad, it’s the only way change happens. And we’re not talking about a fad here. We’re talking about a fundamentally new understanding of what it means to have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and other illnesses.

That’s going to take serious time.



Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at and