Using language that shames people who live with mental illness is so ubiquitous, sometimes we speak without considering the ramifications of our words. But even if we have no ill-intent, certain practices proliferate harmful stereotypes. Stopping the practice of using demeaning language can help stop the spread of negative stigmas associated with mental illnesses.
1. Diagnosing others as an insult.
Describing someone as being a psychopath because they yelled at you or behaved carelessly doesn’t help anyone involved in the situation. Instead of labeling someone as ‘psycho’ or ‘crazy,’ describe what they did and how it made you feel. Not to sound like a freshman year writing teacher, but describe the actual scene instead of reaching for an overused shortcut. By using the term as an insult, it only makes it seem like people who have mental disorders are angry or deceptive when those symptoms do not necessarily manifest in every person. Not only does this language harm those who are really afflicted with the disorder, but it detracts the blame from people who do harmful things by attributing their actions to an illness that they do not have.
2. Making jokes at the expense of mentally ill people.
When a person with a mental illness is showing outward symptoms, it’s a serious thing. Joking about celebrity mental illness can seem like an easy target—after all, you don’t even know them—but hearing someone laugh at someone else's mental illness can make people who have those disorders feel ashamed. It sends a message to those living with mental illness that if they hide their symptoms they’re being good, but if their symptoms manifest they will be mocked by those who are supposed to care about them. This adds extra stress that if they display symptoms, they will be ostracized or the object of gossip.
3. Self-diagnosing as a means of description.
When you reach for medical terms to describe things you don’t like about yourself, it trivializes the disorder and is also just a really lazy shortcut. Even when these labels are not used maliciously, they can still do harm by pushing stereotypes and making it seem as if the illness is not that big of a deal or something to be ashamed of.
4. Labeling those living with mental illness by their diagnosis
Whether it’s someone you know personally or not, using a person’s diagnosis as a label about their entire personality is reductive. Taking one biological occurrence and making it the most important thing about them is rude and unnecessary. Using a factor about a person that they can’t control also says less about them than distinguishing them by a hobby or talent they have.
5. Shaming nedication taking.
Implying that a person who behaves in an unpleasant way should be on medication as a slight that only demeans people. Making the step to take a medication for a mental illness is a huge decision, and making it the butt of a joke isn’t cool. It also proliferates the false idea that managing actual mental illness is as simple as taking a drug that will fix everything, which is also harmful.
If you do slip up and use a phrase that is shaming, apologizing and correcting what you said with what you actually meant by your comment. For example: “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said I have OCD. That was lazy of me--what I mean to say is I’m very organized.” Self-correcting shows that you’re aware that the language is harmful and lets others who may have never considered the impact of this behavior see that it shouldn’t be acceptable. Making these changes could also mean a lot to those around you who are living with the mental illness themselves.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.