Living With Psychosis – How Your Language Can Hurt

If you throw around the words ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional’ to describe someone you disagree with, or roll it out when you’ve been hurt or upset – then you can’t call yourself a mental health advocate, or say that you care about mental health. There, I’ve said it.

People have said to me, “But surely delusional doesn’t just have a pathological meaning?” My answer to that is it depends on the context. I think generally people know what they’re insinuating when they call someone delusional. They know exactly what they’re doing, what they mean, and the reaction they’re trying to invoke. I have delusional thinking and I find it offensive when someone uses it as a slur. Delusional, and the word psychotic, are not synonymous with badness, which is often how they are used. The English language is huge and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to change up your vocabulary!

The misuse use of these words is one of those things about mental illness that just doesn’t stick when you talk about it. And I’m majorly fed up with explaining it. People either don’t want to change the language they use, don’t see it’s a problem, or simply forget the point, and start using the words all over again. I see or hear the word psychotic misused pretty much everyday. It’s either on social media, in tv or film. So really, it’s EVERYWHERE. It’s exhausting to keep calling it out, or getting annoyed at a show or a movie when they use it in the wrong context.

I’ve had people say to me “C’mon, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a word!” That’s your opinion, but it’s important to listen to the opinion of people that are actually psychotic. That live with the condition/symptom and have to hear the word being used negatively every single day. Imagine you’ve been diagnosed with psychosis. The word psychotic has become a part of your life, whether you want it to or not. You know the feeling of dread when you start to hear, see or feel things that aren’t really there. You remember the extreme paranoia or delusions of grandeur that come with delusional thinking. You’re slowly learning to manage it, but it’s terrifying. It’s confusing and disorientating. It makes you feel extremely vulnerable. You feel untethered from reality and like there is no safety net to catch you. Because of all of this, you’re at a higher risk when you’re ill of being the victim of crime than the general population. Then imagine a friend has had a bad break up. They suddenly start describing their ex to you as a “psychotic nazi.” Later that day you find a show you think you’ll like and put it on the telly. The villain, the character the audience is supposed to hate, is described as psychotic. The next day, a family member rants to you about a politician. They tell you that they’re “evil, dangerous, psychotic.” And it continues like this, with people all around you casually throwing the word around – not once thinking about the impact it will have on you.

All I’m asking is to think before you speak. It all adds up. You might think it’s not a big deal when you say it, but hearing it constantly misused takes it’s toll. If you live with psychosis it warps the way you think about yourself. You start questioning, “Am I a bad person?” “Am I dangerous when I’m ill?” Because the word has been given a different meaning by the people around you and in society in general. It’s so commonly misused you start to doubt whether the way you use the word is right. It grinds you down, it makes you feel like you’re broken and people see you as dangerous.

They’re not ‘just words’ they carry venom that poisons people that are already vulnerable. It stops people from accessing care and support because they don’t want the label. It isolates people that already feel alone and misunderstood.

No, that person you disagree with isn’t delusional

As someone that experiences actual delusional thinking, it’s difficult to hear people using the word to describe someone they disagree with. By using this term all you’re doing is insinuating our symptoms are synonymous with badness. 

I live with Bipolar disorder, with psychotic symptoms. When I have an episode of bipolar mania, I might become delusional. This means I often experience delusions of grandeur. I’ve experienced this since my late teens, with it first surfacing at University. I wasn’t diagnosed until my mid twenties. Delusional thinking means I lose touch with reality. A recurring belief I’ve had is that I’m not only invincible, but that I’m incredibly important. I’ll believe it’s impossible for me to be hurt by anything or anyone. I’ll also think that this power extends to people keeping me out of harms way. It doesn’t make sense and it’s not supposed to! In the moment though I’m convinced I’m right, and any evidence to the contrary wouldn’t change my mind. Delusional thinking has caused me to be run over. I would just walk out into busy roads without looking, believing everything would be ok. Luckily I came away with just bruises, which further fuelled the delusions. I’ve also be in quite a serious car crash because I decided I could drive in the middle of the road, because cars would move out of my way. Again, somehow, no one was hurt. 

With elections, Brexit and Trump, I’ve heard more and more people use the word as a slur. I’ve even had someone from my extended family use it, when they know I suffer with delusions. When opposing sides are arguing, or even just having a debate on an issue, the go to word seems to be ‘delusional’. I’ve heard phrases in the media, by experts in their field, by politicians in interviews all along the lines of;

“This policy is delusional”

“What they’re suggesting is delusional.”

“This delusion will harm the public/economy/our country etc.

It’s insensitive, lazy and a gross misuse of the word. “But delusional means different things!” It may do, but it’s obvious what meaning people are trying to convey when they call someone delusional when they deeply disagree with someone. It’s hard enough trying to explain what delusions are to family and friends, without them constantly hearing the word in a negative light on the news, on social media and by the people running our country. The more people hear the word used in this way, the more likely they are to use it in their day to day language.

Why does it matter what words people use? It’s just a word isn’t it? Well, it portrays delusions, and the people that experience them, as bad. It fuels the idea that people that experience delusions are dangerous. It’s deeply hurtful to the individuals that experience them. We’re human beings and are affected by an illness that can completely overwhelm us, cause damage to our relationships and our lives. We deserve to be listened to when we say a word used in this negative context is hurtful.

Changing up your vocabulary isn’t difficult. Try using words to convey how you feel about what someone has suggested, such as; unrealistic, fantasy, pipe dream, confused, wrong, ignorant etc. Think about that difference of opinion, and the emotion or belief that first pops into your head, and use that word.

I’ve heard people saying that awareness raising has had its moment; that people understand what depression and anxiety is now. I think the way delusional is used shows that stigma, and a lack of knowledge and understanding is still rife when it comes to certain mental illnesses. The less palatable it seems, the more stigma exists.

Before you say it, think about the person behind the word. Think about the ordinary person, like me, who experiences delusions. Think about how you would feel if something you live with was thrown around to attack, discredit, and insinuate someone is bad and cruel. I don’t think you’d use the word in the same way again.

What Not To Say To Someone With Psychosis

Psychosis happens amongst people with the mental illnesses schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, post partum psychosis, and sometimes those with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and severe depression. Psychosis is experienced in two different ways; hallucinations and delusions.

Hallucinations are when a person hears, sees, smells, tastes or feels something that isn’t really there. It’s a sensory experience that happens without any outside stimuli. The world around them is perceived differently to everyone else, with others not being able to see, hear, or feel what they can. The whole experience feels very real to the person experiencing it. One of the most common hallucinations is hearing sounds and voices.

Those with psychosis often lose touch with reality and suffer delusions. Delusions are when you believe wild theories and beliefs that often have no evidence based in fact. People may have what’s called ‘delusions of grandeur’ where they may feel like the most important person in the world. They may believe they have powers or intelligence above and beyond anyone else.

Since being open about my experiences of psychosis, I’ve had many ‘helpful’ comments and sometimes some that are just downright insulting. So I’ve put together a list of the top comments that really shouldn’t be said to anyone with psychosis.

“Does that mean you’re violent?

This one comes up again and again. A very small minority of people with psychosis are dangerous. The vast majority are actually far more at risk of being a victim of violence and crime than committing one. Psychosis in fact makes you feel extremely vulnerable and scared of the world around you.

“Have you taken your meds?”

I find being asked this condescending and just rude. When I’m going through an episode of psychosis, being asked this question is not helpful. It actually makes me feel more paranoid than I already am.

“I’ve had hallucinations when I took…”

Ok, you may have taken an hallucinogen at some point, but it’s an entirely different experience when you suffer with psychosis. You have no idea when the next episode may happen, you can’t pick and choose how and when.

“You must be really mental, shouldn’t you be in hospital?”

I have lived with psychosis since I was a teenager and I’ve learnt how to cope with the voices I hear. When I have delusions I rely on my partner and family to keep an eye on me and my behaviour. It is possible to have an episode of psychosis and manage it without hospitalisation. Believing I should be locked away is deeply stigmatising and creates barriers to people discussing it. I might be having an experience that person finds uncomfortable and doesn’t fully understand, but that is on them to educate themselves, not for me to hide away.

“It’s just like having an imaginary friend isn’t it?”

I hear voices and no, it’s not like having an imaginary friend. That’s because children use their imaginations to create stories and scenarios. Psychosis feels like it’s coming from an outside source, from outside your own inner monologue or imagination. Imaginary friends are often a source of comfort to the person. Although voices can sometimes be a positive experience, they can also be deeply frightening and disturbing.

“That’s such a stupid thing to believe!”

Confronting and arguing with someone about a delusion they are experiencing is not helpful. It may sound ridiculous to you, but to them, in a midst of a psychotic episode it is very real. You can’t convince someone to start looking at something in a different way. They’re unwell and need understanding and support. Empathise with their situation and what they’re going through. Try and focus on what might be troubling them and what you might be able to do to alleviate the stress they’re feeling.

“Just stop thinking about it!”

This doesn’t work. It might be frustrating trying to understand, but you can’t just snap out of a psychotic episode. I literally can’t stop thinking about the delusion or the voices I’m hearing. Often the person just needs to ride out the experience if they’re having hallucinations. Instead focus on asking what you can do to help them. Be gentle in your questioning and stay calm.


A Life Lived Vividly Series – I Can Do Anything! Delusional Thinking And Me

A Life Lived Vividly

I live with bipolar disorder, but also have symptoms of psychosis, which includes delusional thinking. I describe what delusions are in the post A Life Lived Vividly Series – What Is Psychosis?

When I’m manic I experience delusions. I think I can do anything. I have what’s called delusions of grandeur, where I believe I’m better than everyone else. I will think that I can do no wrong, that I’m always the smartest person in the room. Actually it’s more than that. I’ll truly believe that only I have all the answers, that I’m the smartest person that ever existed. This type of thinking causes me to react to people irrationally and often aggressively.

“How dare they think they’re better than me!” I will say to myself.

“How can they possibly question me when I have all the answers!”

“Everyone around me is ignorant and stupid. They should all listen to me.”

This isn’t arrogance, or an inflated ego. I don’t believe these things about myself most of the time. In fact, I’m pretty insecure. I’ve written an example of this type of thinking in the post A Story of Self Sabotage

What mania makes me is incredibly confident. Sometimes this confidence turns into delusion. I believe that everything I am creating is like gold dust, and must be seen and shared. I have written reams and reams of notes of ideas for a book, at the time believing them to be the best ideas I’ve ever had. When I look back on them at a later time all I see is scribbled nonsense, a stream of consciousness, misspelled and a jumble of words. It’s like the pages of these notebooks are a reflection of my manic mind. My mind is constantly darting from one idea to another, and never finishing my original point. My mind is distracted by the smallest spark of an idea, and every thought that comes to mind grips my attention. I show everyone what I’ve been working on, with a pride that verges on narcissism. 

Other times when I’m manic, the delusions I encounter put me in danger. A recurring belief is that I can stop traffic. I believe that if I step into a road, every car, bus and lorry will immediately stop and I can walk safely across. I also think that even if this power  becomes faulty in some way, I will not be hurt. I don’t believe there is some greater power watching over me, but instead that I’m so important that I have become invincible. I live in Reading, a busy town with it’s fair share of traffic, so you can imagine the danger I have put myself through. I’ve had many near misses as I’ve walked along busy roads and have stepped out with no fear and no thought for the repercussions. I’ve been run over twice, and had a near miss with a double decker bus. On both occasions of being knocked over, I was extremely lucky not to be seriously hurt and came away with just a few cuts and bruises. Unfortunately, not being hurt on both occasions fuelled my belief that I was invincible.

Everyone experiences delusions in a different way, and no two experiences are the same.  I have learnt to recognise when I’m beginning to show signs of mania, that I’ve written about in the post The Warning Signs of a Manic Episode

Even though I can recognise what’s happening, I’m not always able to stop it and I still have episodes of mania that can lead to me experiencing delusions. Luckily I have a supportive husband and family that can keep a close eye on me and stop me from putting myself in dangerous situations.

Any questions about delusions or want to share your own experience? Then comment below!