Home2017-2018Changing mental health dialogue: How reckless language worsens mental illness stigma

Changing mental health dialogue: How reckless language worsens mental illness stigma

By Sophie Smith
Staff Writer

Trigger warning: this article describes misconceptions and symptoms pertaining to mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, OCD, depression and schizophrenia.


Last week, as I waited for the AMTRAK to pass during my ritual Sunday trek to Safeway, a headline inside a busted newspaper vending machine caught my eye: “Bipolar Portland,” screamed at me from the front page of the week’s Business Tribune. Despite the overladen plastic bags threatening to slice through my fingers, I managed to tuck a copy between my teeth to devour once I got home.

At first I thought I was reading the wrong article. The piece was about the rising value of industrial land in northern Oregon, not the mental health of Portlandians. In a culture where political correctness is becoming increasingly respected, how could such an insensitive — and frankly, ignorant — headline have slipped through the cracks?

“Bipolar” isn’t the only psychiatric term that gets thrown around so recklessly. We hear it all the time, from someone describing a friend as “OCD” for keeping a tidy room, to the self-diagnosis of depression when reeling from a bad exam grade.

If you need further convincing, hop on Twitter. The other day I stumbled across a gem from one profound tweeter: “This weather more bipolar than a female with trust issues.”

This misuse of words is more than an indicator of semantic ignorance. Casually throwing around these terms does harm to the people whose lives the conditions impact. It diminishes the meaning of these words, rendering them mundane and distancing them from their true definitions. I’m not the only one to hold this opinion.

John Paul Welch is president of Active Minds, a soon-to-be club at Willamette that raises awareness about mental illness. The group will host events, spread information and help to makes sure mental health resources are easily available on campus. John Paul agrees the misuse of psychiatric terms is a harmful trend. “It may reinforce a simplistic way of looking at a particular mental illness that doesn’t reflect what the illness is really like,” he said. “There is a risk of losing the complexity and nuance of what the term actually refers to.”

For some people who do not suffer from mental illness, these nuances might not matter. You know that adage: “out of sight, out of mind”? Because mental illnesses aren’t always as outwardly obvious as physical illnesses, they can easily become invisible, or even invalidated.

“How do you validate something you can’t see?” asked Caitlin Forbes, a psychology major and Collegian managing editor.

Invalidity is destructive. Not only does it cause the words’ meanings to be distorted, but it also associates them with negative connotations that reinforce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Have you ever heard the word “schizo” used in a positive context?

“These words are made to help people feel like they’re not alone,” said Caitlin. But associating them with negative attributes, she says, can make sufferers feel isolated from others. It can make people feel as though something is wrong with them.

It can be hard to understand the full weight of this problem without experiencing its effects firsthand. Five months ago I would not have looked twice at that Business Tribune headline, but after being diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder last October, language like this has begun to grate on me.

Bipolar is not a descriptor for fickle economic trends — it’s a condition that causes people to alternate between lengthy periods of depression and elevated moods, sometimes even dangerously so. If untreated, it can cause sleep loss, exuberance, irritability, reckless behavior and, in the case of Bipolar I, psychotic features. Fickleness is not a symptom.

I am comfortable with my diagnosis and the work I do to manage it. And yet, whenever I hear someone lament about the bipolar Oregon weather, my first instinct is to flee the conversation. If this person has such a negative understanding of the disorder, what does she think of me?

I spent a long time contemplating if I should include my experience in this article. Am I oversharing? Would it be construed as a shallow attention grab? But the more I tossed and turned over it, the greater my need to write. I have an important — if not unique — perspective on the issue, and I have the platforms with which to share it at my disposal. How can I claim to be an advocate for de-stigmatization if I’m ashamed to share my own story?

Words are powerful. Just as easily as they can harm, so too can they empower. I hope my words can empower others to speak with sensitivity, hold others accountable for their language and to be open about their personal experiences with mental illness. And to anyone whom stigma still hurts, anyone who is struggling or feels alone or scared or invisible: I see you. People care and people want to help.

We see you.


Active Minds meets every Monday at 7pm in Smullin 159. For more information, contact <willametteactivemindschapter@gmail.com>.



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