‘Watch Your Language!’ : A Guide to Using Mental Illness Terminology Correctly
You’re in a crowded office, or a full lecture theatre. You’re feeling under the weather today – nothing major, just a cough or a case of the sniffles. You turn to the person nearest to you and you say “I’m feeling kind of cancery today.”
That person stiffens, like you’ve slapped them in the face. You were unaware that that word, cancer, had terrible memories attached to it. The person on the other side of you hears you say it too, and is offended by your choice of words. You’re using a really serious, devastating illness to describe something that is essentially trivial.[pullquote] You were unaware that that word, cancer, had terrible memories attached to it. You’re using a really serious, devastating illness to describe something that is essentially trivial.[/pullquote]
The thing is, if you ask most decent people if they think the above scenario is realistic, they’d be horrified. Nobody would ever use something so serious in a joking or trivialised manner, because everyone understands the horrors of cancer, and what it does to people, to families, and to lives. I can almost guarantee that if someone were to declare “I feel cancery today” they would be met with a cacophony of voices telling them to shut up, to not be so insensitive, to think about what they’re saying. So with that in mind, let’s ask ourselves – why do we think it’s okay to use mental illness terminology the same way?
I can guess that most of us will have either overheard someone else doing this, or may be guilty of it ourselves. Phrases like “I need to organise my socks by colour, I’m so OCD,” or “She was in a great mood this morning, she’s so bipolar,” or “I had no money to buy a new dress earlier, I’m so depressed,” are used recklessly on an extremely regular basis. I know I’ve heard enough of it, and I’m sure a lot of you have too.
This is probably happening due to the fact that mental illness is far more talked about than it was a few years ago. And while this should be a good thing, it has resulted in diagnosable mental illnesses being reduced to colloquial insults or everyday language. While one may argue that they didn’t mean anything specific by using OCD/depression/bipolar disorder as an adjective, it’s important to remember that you never really know who’s listening.[pullquote]This is probably happening due to the fact that mental illness is far more talked about than it was a few years ago, resulting in diagnosable mental illnesses being reduced to colloquial insults or everyday language.[/pullquote]
Last year, 7.7% of Ireland’s population were recorded as having depression – and those are just the statistics of those diagnosed. Of that percentage, some 10,000 people will be hospitalised with that depression. In recent years, the number of suicides has risen considerably too, with statistics from 2011 recording 554 suicides across the country. It has been suggested that this number is even higher today.
I would imagine that knowing someone suffering from the very illness you are using as a colloquialism could perhaps make you think twice about using it, but often I have heard of people being told to “get over it” and that it’s “just a joke.” I don’t think 10,000 hospitalisations and 554 suicides are a joke. Those numbers represent real people, with real families and real lives and real experiences. Their mental well-being is not a basis for your joke.
To help us all to understand when and where it is appropriate to use mental illness terminology, I have created a simple three step guide to ensure we don’t misuse mental health terms ever again.
Question one: Is the word you wish to use a mental illness term? If the answer is no, great! Continue as you were. If the answer is yes, then proceed to question two.
Question two: Are you planning on using the mental illness term in a derogatory fashion (for example: ‘She’s so bipolar,’ ‘He’s got split personality disorder’)? If yes, please find a suitable alternative. If no, proceed to question three.
Question three: Are you using the mental illness term as a synonym for sad/angry/tidy/anything that doesn’t fit your definition of what constitutes ‘normal’ human behaviour? If yes – please find a suitable alternative. If no, then great! You are the master of appropriate language.
Okay, that may have been ever so slightly facetious, but I think the message is clear. Words have the power to hurt people, but we have an infinite number of words available to use. In fact, the average human has 20,000 active words in their vocabulary. That’s a lot of words that aren’t minimising or belittling the experiences of others, or alienating someone you work with, go to college with, or may even be friends with.[pullquote] I don’t think 10,000 hospitalisations and 554 suicides are a joke. Those numbers represent real people, with real families and real lives and real experiences. Their mental well-being is not a basis for your joke.[/pullquote]
Instead of claiming to have OCD because you like to line your pens up on your desk (as opposed to true OCD where any ritualistic activity is a compulsion – there’s nothing likable about it), perhaps consider using “I am a neat freak!” Instead of saying someone is ‘schizo,’ perhaps consider saying “I don’t understand their behaviour.”
These might sound like ridiculous suggestions, but stigma begins with language. Next time you think about calling someone bipolar – please don’t. Mental illness is as valid an illness as cancer. It deserves the same respect and empathy as any other physical illness. By watching our language, we’re helping reduce some heavy stigma that still clouds the experiences of the thousands of mental health sufferers we have in the world.
It’s really not that difficult.