I have a confession to make…When I hear the phrase ‘mental illness’ it tends to rub me the wrong way. These words shouldn’t bother me, after all I write about the topic sharing my story with the world in an effort to reduce stigma and hopefully help others through their struggles. But to be completely honest, when I admit — even to myself — that I have a mental illness or when I read something containing those words it makes me squirm and I think I’ve finally figured out why.
First we need to consider these questions. When you hear the phrase ‘mental illness’ what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it a negative thought? Does a clip from the nightly news or horror movie play through your mind? Does it evoke images of unkempt people wandering around a psych ward rambling on about things that aren’t there? I admit…sometimes stereotypes such as these invade my mind and that really makes me mad — especially at myself because of all people I should know better.
I looked up the word ‘mental’ on thesaurus.com and the results were very telling. Used as an adjective it simply means ‘relating to the mind’ as in cerebral, intellectual, psychological, ideological etc.
But then I continued reading further and discovered the source of my uneasiness. There were three pages of “words related to mental” and the more I read the more uncomfortable I became. Here are just a few examples:
Abnormal, deviant, weird, psycho, crazed, lunatic, demented, deranged, raving, bonkers, nuts , wacky, absurd, half-baked, idiotic…
The list went on and on…
I’m sure you see the pattern and get the point. Technically these words aren’t classified as synonyms for ‘mental’ but it’s not the technicalities I’m concerned with. The thought that strikes me is why are all these negative words (many with downright insulting connotations) even associated with “mental?”
I suppose if you considered the literal meaning paired with the word ‘illness’ it’s no big deal. Is that the only meaning we use though? How many times have you heard the term ‘mental illness’ and associated it with one of the related words? No wonder the phrase makes me uncomfortable especially when I use it to describe what I suffer from.
I vividly recall as a teenager using the phrase ‘She’s so mental’ to describe classmates who were emotional or struggling. I certainly didn’t mean it as a compliment and quite often it was used to describe me even by people close to me. If I cried at seemingly inappropriate times or appeared overly emotional, other girls were quick to roll their eyes and dismiss me as ‘being mental.’ The bottom line is the intentions were to insult the person to whom we were referring and meant to be derogatory.
When something historically carries with it a negative connotation or stereotype that’s what becomes embedded in our minds and it’s very difficult to change. We watch the news assuming everyone who commits a crime is mentally ill. Movies depict characters who are mentally ill as extreme and often dangerous. Of course these people might very well suffer from an illness but are those behaviors the first thing that pops into your mind? We rarely see success stories on Dr. Phil about people who have bipolar disorder and are productive members of society. After all, that doesn’t make for exciting tv. However the man who burned down his house and was diagnosed bipolar earned very high ratings.
Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe I’m the only one who will ever think it matters. It could very easily be written off as semantics and there are probably much bigger fish to fry at the moment. Hopefully everyone who reads this can honestly say that words like deranged and lunatic do not cross their mind upon hearing the phrase mental illness.
But digging a little deeper doesn’t it at the very least demonstrate how powerful our words can be? Think about it — one simple word has over three pages of words related to it and more than half are negative and insulting. Depending on our experience and exposure to these words many of these stereotypes hold fast in our minds. If the actual meaning of the word was intended in its use there would be no problem. How often though, do we see it used in a way that paints an ugly picture?
If you witnessed someone having a panic attack or found a stranger rolled up in a ball in a corner talking to themselves would you describe them as wacky or crazy or would you compassionately think they had an issue with their brain and were suffering with an illness? If they called out to you clutching their chest and yelled “Please help me, I feel sick” would you offer help? If they instead were squeezing their head and pleaded, “Please help, I’m mentally ill,” would you be more likely to approach them or hurry away? Which reaction is more kind?
I’m pretty sure most people who know me well wouldn’t describe me as a psycho or deviant, but I wonder if we are more apt to label a person in the news who is identified as bipolar with an adjective from the related word list? I admit that at times I’ve labeled myself as such. What does that say about me?
I do realize that this does not represent everyone’s perceptions and I know I am guilty of self stigmatizing. I can’t help but wonder if it’s partly due to the power of these two words used throughout history to describe a person displaying unacceptable behavior that is deemed undeserving of the sympathy we show toward physical ailments. I doubt the phrase will ever be changed — like bipolar replacing the phrase manic depression– and trust me I even spent time with my thesaurus trying to invent one — but I was unsuccessful. So the only advice I can give myself is to focus on what ‘mental’ really means and force those related words out of my vocabulary.
The way we speak, the words we choose and the context in which we use them are more powerful than we realize. Let’s make a pact to take an inventory of what comes to mind when we hear about mental illness and how we react, and if we are guilty of making assumptions based on all of these words that have become associated with it, let’s make an effort to change that. Even if it’s only in our own thoughts there is no better place to start.