More than half of UK adults (53 per cent) believe that people are more aware of mental health conditions than they were five years ago

With the help of high-profile business leaders speaking openly about their mental health1, the UK has taken strides in speaking out about personal experiences. However, healthcare provider Bupa is calling for more to be done following new research revealing that medical terms are being used inappropriately in everyday conversations in the workplace and at home.

Nearly half of UK adults (49 per cent) are using words such as ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘autistic’ to describe themselves incorrectly. The research raises concerns around mental health terms being trivialised, which could impact employees’ seeking mental health support in the workplace.

While over half of people (53 per cent) agree that awareness of mental health conditions has improved over the last five years, greater understanding of the role played by language is vital. Bupa specialists argue that the seemingly harmless practice of using mental health terms in everyday language can underplay the true meaning of these words, making it harder for people to receive the support they need.

Schizophrenic and psychotic were both seen as the most offensive (26 per cent) terms when used incorrectly.

Looking across the genders, the research shows that women are more likely to misuse mental health descriptors to describe themselves (55 per cent). But men, and those aged under 35, were most likely to use the same phrases in a pejorative sense.

Current estimates suggest that the value added by people in the UK working with mental health problems is £226 billion2 per year.  It’s also estimated that three out of every five employees (60 per cent) have experienced mental health issues in the past year because of work3.  Bupa and MHFA England are therefore calling for employees and employers to be mindful of their language to help support those with mental health problems at work.

Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK, said:

“We’ve seen a positive shift in recent years where more employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health. But this doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels; we need to be cautious about the way we use mental health language, both at home and in the workplace, and make sure it’s used appropriately.

“If terms are being used incorrectly, it could potentially have negative consequences for sufferers. For example, it could make it more difficult for someone to speak to his or her manager; potentially delaying the time it takes for them to seek medical help.

“This has an impact on the organisation. The value added by people working with mental health is in the billions per year. If you’re a manager, it’s important to promote a supportive environment for employees suffering with mental health problems – as it helps to employ, retain and get the best out of your people.

“We recently launched Direct Access – our self-referral service for mental health – for this reason. We’re encouraging employees to think about their choice of words in the workplace, and stop incorrectly using mental health language.”

Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP, commented:

“Misusing definitions of mental ill health confuses our understanding of already-complex conditions. We should be sensitive to the negative impact caused by the derogatory or casual use of words like ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘autistic’, which can stigmatise people with those conditions. We want to support, not alienate, those with mental ill health – we shouldn’t trivialise what they’re going through.”

Poppy Jaman, CEO, Mental Health First Aid England, commented:

“We can never underestimate the subtle but integral role language has to play in creating the cultures and communities in which we live and work, be that diversity, gender, or mental health. Part and parcel of every Mental Health First Aid course is a discussion around how everyday language can contribute to the stigma of mental ill health and by doing so we shine a spotlight on our individual responsibility to choose appropriate words and phrases. We do this to support discussion of mental health and mental illness in a way that encourages open conversations – conversations that may ultimately aid early intervention and quicker recoveries.

“We’re proud to support Bupa in highlighting this important issue and calling on people to reflect on the language they use when discussing mental health and wellbeing.”

Since the launch of Bupa’s Direct Access: Mental Health service last year over 3,000 customers have used it receive medical support, without the need of a GP referral.

Below are some of the words that people find offensive when used outside of the mental health context:

Respondents were asked which phrases or words they found most offensive when used outside of the correct mental health context.

  1.   Schizophrenic/schizo (26 per cent)
  2.   Psychotic (26 per cent)
  3. Special needs (19 per cent)
  4. Autistic (16 per cent)
  5. Bi-polar (10 per cent)


If you are interested in health and wellbeing or finding out more about transforming your wellbeing initiatives you may be interested in our Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Forum  held in London on the 15th November. Click here for more details.





Rebecca joined the HRreview editorial team in January 2016. After graduating from the University of Sheffield Hallam in 2013 with a BA in English Literature, Rebecca has spent five years working in print and online journalism in Manchester and London. In the past she has been part of the editorial teams at Sleeper and Dezeen and has founded her own arts collective.