Social Work Ethics: Words Used Wrong
Not many years ago, the word “gay” became used as a commonplace slang expression in many dominant cultures to mean stupid, bad, unimportant, inferior. This paradoxical misuse of a word that means happy and joyous was directly related to its second meaning: homosexual. Social work ethics do not condone the use of language that undermines a person’s well-being.
The negative connotation of the word “gay,” was derived from a prevailing idea that being gay (homosexual) was stupid, bad, unimportant, or inferior; it reflected a high level of homophobia in dominant society. LGBTQ activists, individuals, and allies recognized the harm1 this gross misuse of the word could do (and was doing) to their communities, and made significant advancements to combat this destructive malapropism2, 3.
Learn more about: School Social Work or Counseling: What’s the Difference?
Other Examples of Phrases to Consider
“Gay,” of course, is not the only such word that has come to have a negative connotation evidencing the continued problem of discrimination against a certain group. In addition to homophobic language, there is continued evidence of racist, Islamophobic, and sexist language rampant in everyday speech. Added to that list is the increasing use of language that, subtly or overtly, discloses a fear, dismissal, or discrimination toward mental health issues.
Phrases like “She’s crazy,” “He’s such a psychopath,” or “I’m feeling bipolar,” when used in casual, rather than clinical, conversation slowly change the meaning of these terms, undermining their true clinical diagnosis criteria and definitions, and instead treating serious mental health issues as something else.
Knowing Words Can Hurt
In some instances, this misuse of mental health-related terminology inflates or hyperbolizes the meaning of the word:
- stating that someone was acting psychotic, for example, when what is meant is simply that the person’s behavior was slightly out of the norm.
Other times, it belittles the experience of a person who is living with the named disease
- for example, describing one’s occasional moodiness as bipolar.
And often, it is degrading to the population of people who fit the clinical diagnosis of the term, much in the way the misuse of the word “gay” carried a negative connotation
- saying someone or something is “retarded,” for instance.
In any of these situations, the misuse of the word is damaging to societal perceptions of mental health and individuals with mental health conditions.
Making Words Powerful and Purposeful
As mental health practitioners who have been highly trained in understanding the true meaning and manifestation of these words, social workers should be the guardians and protectors of their use. Using social work ethics, setting an example for our use of language, and advocating against the corruption of mental health-related language.
Language is a powerful and indispensable tool that allows us to express ourselves, convey meaning, and communicate effectively with others. But we must remember that the words we use carry great significance, and how we use language to serve our purposes and convey our intents comes to bear on the way words are understood, contextualized, and connoted.
As social work practitioners, we hold ourselves to high standards of social work ethics with our clients, communities, and colleagues, and are responsible for cultivating our self-awareness in a number of areas.
Language and word choice should form part of that ethical responsibility to our client systems and ourselves. We must ensure that we do not misuse, hyperbolize, or perpetuate negative or inappropriate connotations of words and expressions related to mental health and social work practice, that we model appropriate use of mental health language for others, and that we actively advocate for language use that is respectful of and sensitive to mental health issues.
- Woodford, MR, Howell, ML, Silverschanz, P. “That’s so gay!”: examining the covariates of hearing this expression among gay, lesbian, and bisexual college students. Jrnl of American College Health. 2012, Mar 19; 60(6):429-434.
- Bartram, F. An introduction to supporting LGBT young people: a guide for schools [Internet]. London (UK): Stonewall Education; 2015 [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from
- Welcoming Schools. What do you say to “that’s so gay” and other LGBTQ* comments [Internet]. Washington (DC): The Human Rights Campaign Foundation; 2016 [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from