Mental illness touches all of our lives, whether personally or through a friend, family member or neighbor. One in five people has experienced some form of mental illness in a given year. Stigma forces people to be private about their mental health, suffer in silence and forgo seeking treatment that often is the difference between life and death.
As a peer counselor and manager at Valley Cities Behavioral Health, it is my job to provide support to individuals living with behavioral health challenges and their families, promote self-empowerment and act as a role model for recovery. I often coach families that one of the easiest ways to help their children or other struggling family members is by being respectful and compassionate.
Recovery starts with changing their words.
There are few expressions that make me cringe as much as hearing somebody called “crazy.” As somebody who has had my own struggles with behavioral health, it touches a nerve. Yet comments like that are tossed around so casually these days. It is particularly disheartening to hear family members use it when addressing their frustrations with the behavior of their loved ones.
The reality is, people living with mental illness aren’t crazy. They are simply dealing with a difficult health challenge, or are responding in the best way they can to an unusual set of circumstances. It’s no different from diabetes or heart disease, in that all health issues require treatment and support. Words like “crazy,” “nuts” and “psycho” only serve to stigmatize a person through labeling, discrimination and stereotyping. Mental health professionals like myself know all too well that stigma is a barrier to seeking treatment.
So how truly damaging are these types of words?
When we use stigmatizing words, we are disrespecting what somebody is going through and the trauma they have likely experienced (trauma is proven to be a central issue for people with mental health problems). When a person experiencing mental illness hears stigmatizing words, they often feel ashamed and hopeless. They feel defined by the label rather than somebody who lives with an illness who is also a mother or a daughter, a friend or a coworker. Labels stick. Labels can seem like a life sentence. Even the term “mentally ill” needs reframing. Instead say, “person living with mental illness.”
We are also trivializing a very serious illness by using mental health terminology when other words should be used instead. No, you are not “depressed” after watching a particularly dark TV show. You are disappointed or upset.
I also hear “bipolar” used to describe someone who is emotional or moody, and that is unfair to the person and disrespectful to those who truly struggle with the diagnosis. Try “hot and cold” instead. In the same way that calling somebody OCD (a shortened form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is often used to describe a need for organization or certain habits is not a true diagnosis of OCD. Use “very organized” or “particular” instead.
Can you see how people experiencing depression can be looked at as not having a “real” illness and how this hinders their treatment? How do we show consideration for people who are experiencing mental health conditions? We can do so by being more intentional about the words we use. We can be supportive and encouraging to people instead of judgmental and stereotyping.
Whether you’re gossiping with friends about an acquaintance’s oversharing on social media (“Gosh, she’s crazy about posting all those pictures of her kids!”) or commenting on something more serious, like the person experiencing a mental health episode on the street, no one deserves this emotionally damaging and stigmatizing label. I ask you to stop and pause for a minute before commenting and be intentional with your word choice. Let’s stop throwing words around so carelessly. You never know who is listening.
Danielle Goodwin works in the Peer Support Program at Valley Cities Behavioral Health and is a full-time student at Highline Community College.
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