From Psychiatric Name Calling to Plain, Humane English

mental Health ImageMany mental health service providers well know that there are serious problems with the jargon that is used in their profession.  In a recent post titled “Psychiatric Name Calling: Is It Time To Put A Stop To It?” I outline some of the most glaring ones.  In a subsequent post titled “Psychiatric Name Calling: Is There An Alternative?” I describe a plan for professionals who have an interest in eliminating the problems inherent in the current psychiatric pathologizing approach.  This plan would allow professionals to replace the old model with one that would be practical, more consistent with principles of science, and far less stigmatizing.

gearsAs I have been seeking ways to promote these ideas, it has become more and more apparent that the gears of the mental health service provider professional organizations grind slowly. Until the necessary changes occur, what can the average English speaking person do when faced with terms like mental illness, major depressive disorder, psychosis, schizophrenia, etc.?

Three Principles That Can Be Used When Psychiatric Pathology Terms Are Employed by Others So That The Negative Effects Associated With Their Usage Can Be Reduced 

grinding gearsEven people who are not mental health service providers will regularly use psychiatric jargon. Thus, a French writer once wrote:

My sadness was without limit, and having got possession of me, it filled my life from the most indifferent external acts to the most secret thoughts, and corrupted at their source my feelings, my judgment, and my happiness. It was then that I saw that to expect to put a stop to this disorder by my reason and by my will, which were themselves diseased, would be to act like a blind man who should pretend to correct one of his eyes by the aid of the other equally blind one.

In this quote, the French writer, to describe some concerns he had about his sad mood and how it was affecting his feelings, judgments, and happiness, uses the words “disorder” and “disease.”  This is the type of language most mental health service providers throw around. What is the writer attempting to convey by their use?

meaning 2Sometimes when these words will be employed, their context will make it clear what meaning the author intends. In this example, the author does provide some context.  He clearly indicates he was much sadder than he wished to be, and he believed he was unable to do anything about it.  He also expressed a concern about his feelings, judgments, and happiness, but he was less clear about what he meant by this.

meaning 1When someone begins to use pathologizing language and we simply don’t know what is intended, we might end up with misleading, simplistic associations. And so, here are three principles that can be used when psychiatric pathology terms are employed so that we can avoid unnecessary confusion.

Each Time Someone Uses A Psychopathologizing Term, Ask The User Of The Term For A More Specific Description Of What Is Meant By It

clearIn the example that I provided above, there was some lack of clarity about what the French writer meant about his judgments. We know that he felt that it was disordered and diseased. That really tells us nothing more than he was dissatisfied with his judgments. To clarify, we could ask for some specific examples of when his judgment proved to him unsatisfactory.

mental illnessAs another example, suppose you hear Alice saying that John Doe is “mentally ill.” If you want to use this first principle, you would ask Alice what, specifically, does “mentally ill” mean to her and what has John done specifically that led to her calling John this name. These questions typically lead to further constructive discussions and ends up clarifying the nature of many fascinating experiences.

When Psychopathologizing Terms Are Employed, Express A Concern That This Terminology Simplistically Devalues An Experience

Terms like “mental disorders,” “mental illness” and “psychosis,” even when used by professionals, implies that there is something wrong with the person being described. However, as I described in my post “Are Mental Illnesses Really Potentially Helpful Tools?” there are numerous examples of the types of experiences that tend to be labelled mental disorders that end up being enormously helpful.  Moreover, in cultures that recognize this possibility the outcomes for those people undergoing these challenging experiences are distinctly better.

rethinkAnd so, as you begin to use the first principle, asking for the user of pathologizing terminology for more specifics, if he or she seems to be suggesting that the experience is bad, you might wish to point out this well documented observation.  At such times, I often say, “Many people with artistic temperaments have these types of experiences.  Such people have given the world some of its most valued achievements.”

Instead Of Using The Concept of “Disease” And “Illness” To Encourage Humane Responding Toward Individuals Undergoing Challenging Experiences, Emphasize Rights, Kindness, And Practical Reasons

In seeking to encourage people who are using pathologizing terminology to be more specific, it is not uncommon to find that one reason they use these terms is that they hope it will encourage people to be more humane toward those who have certain challenging experiences.  They usually mean well by this, but this approach has been used for centuries and history documents that despite such efforts, people who are being given these labels have often ended up in some of the most horrible, degrading treatment facilities.

rightsInstead of using the concept of “disease” to encourage humane responding toward individuals undergoing the experiences that get labelled with pathological terms, an alternative is to emphasize human rights, kindness, and practical reasons.

Note that when people in a town are hit with a hurricane, we don’t have to resort to calling them ill to encourage some help. Instead, we have set up laws that entitle people to certain rights from the government when emergencies occur. Moreover, as word gets out about what is occurring to those who are suffering, out of kindness, people make donations or join their hands to provide direct assistance in a variety of ways. And lest we forget, there are practical reasons to lend a hand.  By doing so, we model for people just what kindness is all about.

kindness 1Any of us can find ourselves in an emergency situation.  The more we promote acts of kindness, the more likely we may find that others will treat us with kindness if we are ever to find ourselves in a very unfortunate set of circumstances.

Using the Three Principles

William James, in his grand book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, tells us of some people who have mystical experiences that tend to be called “mental disorders.” James begins to use the three principles when he seeks out descriptions of the various mystical experiences that go well beyond the simplistic psychopathological descriptions.  He then states that these mystical states have the right to be absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.

mysticalIt is vain for rationalism to grumble about this. If the mystical truth that comes to a man proves to be a force that he can live by, what mandate have we of the majority to order him to live in another way? We can throw him into a prison or a madhouse, but we cannot change his mind-we commonly attach it only the more stubbornly to its beliefs.

It mocks our utmost efforts, as a matter of fact, and in point of logic it absolutely escapes our jurisdiction. Our own more “rational” beliefs are based on evidence exactly similar in nature to that which mystics quote for theirs. Our senses, namely, have assured us of certain states of fact; but mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensations ever were for us…. The mystic is, in short, invulnerable, and must be left, whether we relish it or not, in undisturbed enjoyment of his creed. 

kindness 2In this quote, we find no plea from James that we should treat mystics humanely because they have a mental disease. Instead, James puts forth “rights” and “pragmatic” considerations. He argues that just like we in the majority would not like to be ordered to live in a particular way, these mystics have the right to live their way. And pragmatically, if we do use heavy-handed approaches to try to change them, such as throwing them in a madhouse, they will become more stubborn in their beliefs.

James proceeds from here to state that mystics have no right to claim that “we ought to accept the deliverance of their peculiar experiences, if we are ourselves outsiders, and feel no private call thereto.”  His theme is tolerance for both the majority toward the minority and vice versa.

Returning to pragmatic arguments, James tells us in his chapter on mysticism that some have found that their mystical experiences have led to wonderful fruits that they highly valued. Some, for example, suffered for a great period of time and after their mystical experience felt wondrously free from their pain and found in its place increased energy and happiness.

kindness 3James well realizes that the fruits from mystical experiences are not always positive, but he asks us, at the very least, to realize that they have the potential to “be indispensable stages in our approach to the final fullness of the truth.” Thus, we see that “rights” and “pragmatic arguments” can be used instead of a disease concept to promote humane, kind responses toward those who have the types of experiences that tend to be called mental disorders.


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

William James's Personal Bout with a "Mental Disorder"
A Conversation About Unsolicited Criticism

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. You True

  2. Thanks Marilyn and Irene, your kind words are much appreciated.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful and useful article Dr Rubin. The Three Principles are great tools for opening up the spaces instead of remaining stuck at frustration and finger pointing. This gets us all thinking and raising our level of consciousness.

    • Hi Anna-Mari Pieterse,
      So nice to hear from you. And much thanks for your kind words of support. Very much appreciated.

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