10 October 2019 marked World Mental Health Day, a day aimed at dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health struggles and to increase awareness, understanding and compassion of mental illnesses. The 21st century is facing an unprecedented mental health crisis in which it seems almost everyone has a mental illness. However, is everyone suffering from a mental illness or do they simply not know what the term which they are using actually means?
According to The Telegraph, 49% of adults misuse the language of mental health by applying words such as “schizophrenic” and “psychotic” to incorrectly describe themselves or others. The survey also found that 10% of those questioned regarded the term “bipolar” as offensive when incorrectly used.
For example, people are using “schizophrenic” to condemn others behaviour, characterising people they dislike as a “psycho”, applying the word “bipolar” to describe natural mood swings, claiming they are “depressed” when they are feeling down, and defining someone who is organised as “having OCD”.
There is a huge fear that mental health awareness campaigns are doing little to reduce the stigma attached to serious mental illness but are instead medicalising normal low moods and anxiety – with people correlating low moods or just a bad day to having serious mental health issues. The trivialisation of language surrounding mental health is confusing the true meaning of already-complex illnesses which, as a result, makes it even more difficult for people to be provided with the help that they need. Instead of reducing the stigma attached to mental illness, people have begun to use these very serious, complicated illnesses as mere adjectives.
Mental illness has gone from being a taboo which was rarely spoken about to something far worse – the latest must-have where everyone is assumed to have a mental illness. Not every experience of anxiety or stress needs to be diagnosed as a medical condition. This worrying phenomenon has led to people using words such as “depression” or “anxiety” without having a real understanding of what the words signify. Feeling under pressure with exams? You have anxiety. Feeling shy? You have social anxiety. Feeling up and down from one day to the next? You have bipolar disorder. People who use these terms as colloquial slang demonstrate a clear lack of understanding and compassion.
The World Health Organisation found that one in four people suffer from mental disorders worldwide, and most go undetected because two-thirds of those affected never report their condition or symptoms because of the stigma attached to them. And so the next time that you describe yourself as depressed or claim that you have anxiety or are having a panic attack, remember the weight of those words and ensure that you are not just adopting words which you do not understand. Words are the most powerful thing we possess and their capability should never be underestimated. Words can hurt.
The nonchalance placed on terms surrounding mental health undermines the seriousness of mental illness, with people often using words such as “bipolar” or “schizophrenic” to explain everyday behaviour. We are normalising conditions that literally ruin people’s lives. Due to mental illnesses usually being invisible, it seems to allow people to flippantly throw around these terms. In comparison, we would never use a physical illness such as cancer as a negative term to mean weak, for example.
In fact, on the day that I started to write this article, when I was sitting on the bus going home I heard someone saying “Gosh, you are so bipolar!” to the person they were sitting next to. Firstly, people are not bipolar, they have bipolar disorder. There is a huge difference – people should never be defined by their illness. Also, mental illness should never be used as an insult or as a degrading term, especially towards someone who does not have the illness. People facing mental illnesses are often the strongest people out there and by using mental illnesses as adjectives, we are making the illness become part of a person’s identity or as a personality trait. We need to change the way we speak about mental health and stop casually throwing words around as this will eventually make them meaningless.
Mental illnesses have the ability to destroy relationships, isolate you, and ruin careers. There is far more to anxiety than feeling nervous about an important exam. You cannot recover from anxiety by simply remaining calm. You cannot recover from depression by staying positive. You cannot recover from anorexia by eating more. If mental illnesses were that easy, then people would not be struggling. Having a mental illness is tough, and it is even more difficult to manage the unimaginable pain when people assume that you can just get over it. We must act as the bridge of compassion for those who suffer, not alienate them nor trivialise their illness.
By trivialising serious mental illnesses, we are contributing to the stigma that prevents people from seeking help in the first place. Undeniably, we have made progress in raising awareness of mental illness, but there is still a long way to go. What is the solution? Stop throwing words around so carelessly and communicate with a little more consideration. Remember the mantra that we have all been told: think before you speak! Mental illnesses are not a choice, but stigma and ignorance are.
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article you can contact the University Counselling and Psychological Services for information and support: 0141 330 4528 and [email protected]