When I was 17, a close friend of mine sent me an email, writing her thoughts over how frustrating she found my “insecurity” and “low self esteem”. Years later, these same words were used as a verbal attack when I was arguing with a person close to me.
It is a great step forward, that the social vocabulary of mental illness has moved beyond words like “mad”, “insane” and “hysterical”. In fact, awareness of mental health disorders – symptoms, causes and treatments, have provided tremendous help to people who may not have recognized their thoughts and behaviour for what they are, and more importantly, may not have been able to improve the quality of their lives. However, I have noticed, in the last five years or so, terms and certain vague ideas about mental health disorders, as they have entered popular culture, are also being used as a means of humour, verbal attack and even prejudice.
A person who likes to keep her kitchen tidy is jokingly referred to, by herself or others, as “a little OCD”. No one, and mark my words, no one with OCD would actually joke about it. And they would certainly not like it if others do. Humour, thought very effective in alleviating pain, can make matters worse.
My first laboratory experiment in Psychology class was conducting a test on neuroticism in the form of a questionnaire on a subject. This subject was also my lab partner, who simultaneously conducted it on me. Since this was our first experiment, results were discussed in great detail. When it was known that my score was much higher than what is standard(and certainly higher than everyone in the class), there was general laughter, including mine, along with my teacher jokingly telling me to meet her after class. Since then, I have had to often defend more practical examples of my anxiety. I have used humour, deflection and as a last resort, avoidance. Perhaps, if people had been less educated, I might have fared better. Wanting to be on time for movies would just be attributed to my love for them, and not to some anxiety disorder I may or may not have.
The most abused of mental illness terminology is depression and the most ignorantly used is schizophrenia. What people forget is that you cannot label anyone with any mental health disorder unless they have actually been diagnosed with it. Depression has become a catchword, seemingly defeating even “hashtag” in terms of popularity. I would urge you to read The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM, for definitions of various forms of depression. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, perhaps because it is such a delectable word to pronounce, is certainly not something that can be correctly visible to others, even if you are a psychologist.
There are two crucial things you have to keep in mind the next time you use mental health terminology as a means of humour or derision or both. This terminology is a construct of a particular scientific field, for the usage of that scientific field. While its subject and application is based on human beings, it has absolutely no intention for gaining any pop culture vocabularial presence. Like any other field of knowledge, it only wishes to make the quality of life better.
The second, and if there is anything at all that you can learn from this post then let it be this, nothing you say or do can make a person with a mental illness feel worse than they already feel about themselves. Your mockery or insult is only further confirmation of what they already feel is the worst of themselves. If any part of their behaviour is unacceptable to you then, by all means, let them have it. But, only focus on that particular behaviour and not to a possible condition they have. It will only show your prejudice and lack of understanding for people who suffer from mental illness. I am not asking you to go as far as empathize with someone, but please try to act in a more mature manner.
This post has been very difficult for me to write. I was not comfortable writing it as a Life blog, neither am I a professional psychologist to write in a detached, observational way. However, negative aspects of mental illness awareness is a serious issue and I would urge professionals who might be reading this to do something about it.