The Stigma Surrounding Words

Monday October 3rd marked National Day Without Stigma. The most important thing to take away from that is that mental illness is every family’s secret. One in four adults are diagnosed with a mental illness. Everyone’s family has someone going through a tough time, and there is no better time than now to talk about the stigma.

One way stigma manifests itself is through people’s choice of words. Everyone has let something slip at least once or twice, such as saying “that girl is such a psycho,” “this class makes me want to kill myself,” “Stacey is so OCD about her pencil case” or “that gave me PTSD.” People don’t realize the words they choose perpetuate stigma. And even worse, the words damage those who actually have a diagnosis.

Take me for example. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 13. I’ve gotten accustomed to people slipping up every once in a while and misusing the word bipolar. I understand that their intent isn’t to make me feel bad. But nevertheless, it still stings every time. And it’s just not the correct use of the word. People use other words like moody, temperamental, volatile, unpredictable, etc. Expand your vocabulary! There’s plenty of words to choose from that don’t ostracize the mental health community.

The worst experience came when my freshman roommate and I first met. We hit it off all right, but when it came time to introduce me to her boyfriend she said: “This is Todd. He’s so f**king bipolar, its annoying as hell.” It felt like a slap in the face. I was taken aback, and weirdly ashamed. It made me feel like I would never be able to open up to her about that aspect of myself without feeling judged or misunderstood. We ended up not getting along anyway, but her one comment made me self-conscious about my illness. I hid my prescription pills from her for the remainder of our time as roommates.

I know that it may be a more extreme case than most, but even the smallest of offenses can still make or break someone’s day. There’s no way to tell what people are going through. If there’s a chance a small comment could wind up making someone feel ashamed or feel badly about their illness, just think twice. They didn’t ask to be mentally ill, and the least you can do is respect them.

Now this is trickier than you’d think. It takes time to reform a habit, especially when everyone around you is doing the same thing. One of the biggest misused phrases might just be “I want to kill myself.” It’s a bold statement, and yet so many young people say it without even realizing the significance of their words. Suicide is a real epidemic. There are people out there who have considered it, people who have attempted it, and people who have died by it. Those people and their friends and family don’t take it lightly when they hear it being used in place of “I feel overwhelmed right now.”

When people misuse diagnoses or mental health phrases like these, it perpetuates not only the stigma but also the misconceptions around them. Bipolar disorder is so much more than feeling moody. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is more complex than liking things neat. Depression isn’t just feeling blue. So when people who know little about these illnesses hear them used incorrectly, that’s all they have to work with. That kind of ignorance is detrimental to the progress made by anyone with a mental illness.

So how can we change this? It all comes down to you. Replace hurtful words with new vocabulary. And when you hear them being said by your friends or classmates, say something. Don’t be aggressive or accusatory. Be helpful and understanding, and suggest better alternatives. People probably aren’t saying these things to be unkind, though that doesn’t mean that others won’t take it that way. Be courteous and respectful, and understanding of everyone’s personal struggles.