Mental illness and disability carry a lot of stigma, and a lot of people don’t understand it. Assumptions are made about various mental illnesses and the people who have them. And the way that we use terms related to mental illness in everyday language to describe completely different things can do a lot more harm than you think it might.
This isn’t about getting offended, by the way. This is about enforcing harmful stereotypes that actually hurt people who suffer from mental illness and disability. I’m going to go over a few phrases that I’ve heard intelligent, grown up people say. This is far from the extent to which terms related to mental illness are misused, but it’s a start.
‘I’m so OCD about this stuff.’
Are you really? Do you feel like if you don’t do this one little thing in exactly this way the world is going to end? Do you risk a panic attack if you deviate from your routine? For real? Because that’s what people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder experience. You don’t have OCD; you’re pedantic or nitpicky or just really thorough. That is not the same thing. Stop it.
‘He’s a little autistic when it comes to music.’
First of all, no one is ‘a little’ autistic. People are on the autism spectrum or they’re not. Secondly, being autistic is not the same as being Rain Man. Not all people with an autism spectrum disorder can pick up a skill as easily as breathing, and not all people who can pick up a skill just like that is autistic. Humans are complex. Either way, neuro-atypical people struggle so much to exist in the world we’ve created, a world that they don’t fit into because they experience things differently from how others do. Don’t diminish them.
‘The weather’s so bipolar!’
There are a few things in the world that are bipolar. Magnets, say. But when people talk about the weather like this, they’re not talking about magnets. What this usually means is that the weather is changing rapidly. The funny thing is that that isn’t even how bipolar disorder works. Bipolar disorder isn’t the same as mood swings. In fact, most people with bipolar disorder don’t swing rapidly at all; most bipolar people have fewer than four depressive, manic, or hypomanic episodes per year. People who have more frequent episodes have what is known as ‘rapid cycling’. But we’re still talking weeks or at least days, not hours, unless you’re having a mixed episode, which is fairly rare.
‘I will literally kill myself.’
No, you won’t. I don’t think any more needs to be said about this one, other than that it’s melodramatic as fuck. Oh, and it makes people take those who actually do want to kill themselves less seriously.
‘Well, someone’s off their meds…’
It’s true, if I get off my meds my behaviour will likely be a bit erratic. But for one, erratic behaviour does not mean a person needs to be medicated, and for another, the knowledge that you do need to be medicated really fucking sucks. I hate the fact that I will probably never not need medication. I will likely spend the rest of my life taking medication in order to function from day to day. Don’t turn that into a joke.
There are others, but these were the ones that came to mind just now. When people say things like this, I never know how to respond. Calling them out on it can be really difficult, cause people get defensive about it, and I’ll end up backing down and I’ll have changed fuck-all at the cost of my own mental wellbeing. Like many other such 'debates', it’s not worth the risk.
I’m not saying you can never joke about mental illness. Not at all. As a certified lunatic, I think mental illness jokes can be hilarious. You know, provided they’re actually funny. But if you’re not a person with mental illness, don’t ignorantly use our diagnoses for punchlines. It’s not original, most of the time it’s not even funny, and it’s a dick move.