Choose your words carefully: how your language contributes to mental health stigma

From left to right: Robin Pounders (senior), Allison Powers (senior) and Paul Charbonneau (senior) speak during the male mental health discussion circle in Johnson Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018. Flora Villalobos/The Occidental

In order to change how we think about mental health and mental illness, we must challenge the stereotypes society holds. A clear manifestation of these stereotypes is in the language we use to discuss mental health. One particularly pervasive and harmful example is the use of mental illnesses as adjectives in everyday conversation. You’ve surely heard this, if not done it yourself: “That makes me so depressed,” “I want to kill myself,” “That’s bipolar,” “I’m so OCD,” and many less benign examples.

Before we jump in, let’s clarify something: all diagnosable mental disorders include a variety of symptoms that are often experienced by most people. For example, if you read a description of generalized anxiety disorder, you’d likely relate to a lot of it — we all get nervous and overwhelmed at times. The difference between a symptom and a disorder is interference with daily life. Those diagnosed with anxiety experience these symptoms at a frequency and severity that gets in the way of basic functioning. Imagine a time that you felt particularly nervous, and then imagine if you woke up feeling like that most days and couldn’t make it go away — you can see the difference.

Microaggressions are a hot topic lately. People have called out others for being “overly sensitive” and “taking things too seriously.” It can be hard to see the connection between these minor insensitivities and the broader issue of stigma unless you’re the one affected by the stigma. A diagnosis with a mental health disorder is a difficult burden to bear — in addition to living with their symptoms, these individuals face a world that expects them to “toughen up” and “get over it.”

Many struggle daily to manage their disorder to function effectively, which is not captured in the way people often use the terms related to disorders. Hearing someone tossing around your diagnosis as a punchline feels like, well, a punch. It’s a reminder not only of the disorder and the challenges it poses, but also of society’s rejection of the disorder. It’s a cue that the person using the term is deeply entrenched in these misconceptions and might not be someone to turn to for support during times of struggle. Misusing a real diagnosis perpetuates that stigma, reducing those suffering down to a stereotypical caricature used to illustrate the quirks of others. It’s isolating.

We urge everyone to push themselves to be more aware of the experiences of those around them. There are ways to express the feelings associated with emotional challenges without perpetuating negative connotations. Maybe an uneven stack of papers makes you antsy instead of OCD. Maybe the Marketplace running out of your favorite cookie makes you disappointed instead of depressed. We feel confident that most people are not trying to insult those struggling with mental illness, but simply do not know the impact of their words.

We don’t wish to invalidate anyone, because we all experience many of the symptoms of mental disorders. We simply want to be more supportive of those who might be suffering in silence. You never know what those around you are living through and how your words might affect them, so choose them carefully.

Authors for this piece are Allison Powers and the Active Minds E-board, a chapter of the organization at Occidental College. Active Minds is a national organization that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding illness and promote good mental health.