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The Limits of Therapy-Speak When Advocating Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month (SAMHSA). With taboos around mental illness and mental health care inaccessible, many have turned to social media to share resources, build community and validation, and combat shame and isolation. This is valuable for those whose mental health is influenced by societal oppression, as increased exposure to racism increases the likelihood of depression and psychosis. Women of color face additional obstacles in getting accessible, appropriate, and culturally-responsive care (The ConversationThe Guardian). 

It’s encouraging that discussion of mental health and wellness has opened up recently, though this acceptance is often limited to certain kinds of people, topics, and diagnoses. Despite ongoing stigma against people with mental illnesses, there’s been an explosion of “therapy-speak” that mimics therapists’ language. Deploying scripted therapy-speak in our daily lives doesn’t inherently improve our collective mental wellbeing. In fact, it can reinforce the same hierarchies that make mental health treatment inaccessible for so many (NPR). 


• Support the Fireweed Collective, an organization offering free mental health education and mutual aid around “severe mental illnesses.” 

Learn how to support a person experiencing a mental health crisis or navigate a crisis yourself.

• Consider: How can you shift your language to be more community-oriented? What barriers might prevent you from feeling like you can share how you truly feel?

You’ve probably already experienced “therapy-speak.” “Self-care” and “boundary-setting” are well-known concepts. We’re encouraged to smooth over social interactions by talking about “honoring our needs” or “holding emotional space.” To break up with your partner, you’re told to say, “I am afraid we have different goals in life that make it difficult to continue as a couple” (Slate). When a friend reaches out for support you can’t provide, “feminist wellness educator” Melissa Fabello suggests responding with a text saying: 

“Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date or time] instead / Do you have someone else you could reach out to?”

What makes this therapy-speak form response seem absurd is that it’s impersonal, “just the kind of formal language one might pick up from a mental health professional.” To many, “it seemed less like something you’d say to a friend, and more like a response from an HR person” (Slate). Therapy-speak is about using specific phrases from professional-class work environments or therapy as trump cards in everyday interactions. It’s the “HR-ification of language… scripted in a way that removes culpability” (NPR). 

Here’s the thing: neither office jobs nor therapy have ever been particularly inclusive. Therapy-speak discourse positions one’s needs or desires as more valid if framed using language copying white-dominated, upper middle-class spaces. If I say that I’m “at capacity,” or “can’t hold space you right now,” it’s more authoritative or virtuous than saying I’m “super busy” or “real tired”—though they mean the same thing. 

Setting boundaries, being upfront about your emotional needs, and advocating for ourselves are all legitimately important. We should all as individuals be able to practice self-care and set boundaries with people around us. But everyone else should be able to do those things, too. 

Those least able to set boundaries or opt out of uncomfortable situations and conversations have always been marginalized people. Ironically, people experiencing severe mental illness are among the least able to frame their needs in mental health care-inspired therapy-speak. 

And if cookie-cutter therapy-speak is used to escape accountability, those most likely to be harmed are those least able to set boundaries in the first place. We can’t protect self-care at the expense of collective care. We need to emphasize compassion, accountability, and “mutuality” in our relationships and society. In our friendships, mutuality can look like “thinking about your needs and someone else’s needs and deciding which are more important to prioritize in the moment” (NPR). And socially, we need to understand our positionality and use it to transform or replace systems that deny others the resources they need to take care of themselves, as well. 

We need to eradicate the stigma around mental illness: not just for conventionally-attractive people using catchphrases on curated social media pages but for people vilified, incarcerated, or unhoused. We need a vision of mental health awareness that’s about taking care of ourselves but also about demanding culturally-responsive mental health professionals, free psychiatric medication, and non-carceral mental health facilities that treat patients with dignity. We should be able to set boundaries in our personal lives while insisting that the ongoing police murders of people in psychiatric distress violate a non-negotiable boundary. We should all be able to take space from our relationships for a mental health day at home, and all people should have access to a home, regardless of their mental health status. 

The Fireweed Collective provides resources and support by and for people with “severe mental illness” in ways that don’t depend on coercive organizations like the police. We should prepare ourselves to understand how we can navigate crisis ourselves and support people in crisis around us. And we should center people experiencing mental illness as leaders in the struggle to create structural change in a broken system. We need to take care of ourselves in both the personal and communal sense. This Mental Health Awareness Month, we can’t limit our awareness to buzzwords or catchphrases. 


• People are encouraged to express needs using the professional language of “therapy-speak.” 

• Marginalized people have been excluded from professional spaces where that type of language is used. 

• The same groups of people face additional risk factors for mental illness and increased barriers to accessing mental health care.

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Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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