Language and Mental Illness – From Our Perspective

I’d put a good bet on the fact that most people have heard someone say “I’m so OCD about it”, “I had a serious panic attack”, “it gave me PTSD” or even “I nearly had a breakdown”, and not thought anything about it. So many words and phrases relating to mental illness and their symptoms are now used so carelessly in conversation that it’s ingrained in our common language.

But should it be? Should we be using these words and terms in such a blasé manner, or are those of us with mental illnesses just all being over-sensitive? It’s just words, right?

Well no, not really.

I want to share how it feels from my perspective as someone with mental illness, to try and explain why words mean so much to us. Author Yehuda Berg said “words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble” and this is certainly the case here. If we think of the stigma that those of us with mental health disorders still face on a daily basis, in all aspects of our lives, it can be understood why words can carry so much weight for us.

You might think it’s just a word, or a phrase, it doesn’t really mean anything, but when using that terminology becomes commonplace for describing something, it shapes society’s impression of that thing.

For example, saying someone’s “totally OCD” because they dislike it when something isn’t organised correctly is now a pretty familiar occurrence. Over time, this idea has started to minimise what OCD actually is, the stress it causes, the complexity and scope of the disorder and just how debilitating it can be for the sufferer. It’s definitely not just liking things to all be in order, or straight, or clean. There are many different types of OCD and a whole host of symptoms that make up the illness.

If someone with OCD hears someone else saying they have their disorder because, for example, they like to use a certain pen or have a tidy desk, it really detracts from their own lived experience. It can feel as if the sufferer’s symptoms are being undermined.

Not only that, it reinforces the false frame of reference that society has about the disorder. Somebody without OCD can’t ever truly empathise with someone who has it, someone who has lived experience, just as they can’t understand what it’s like to live with Bipolar or Schizophrenia.

If you think about it, you’re saying “I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder”. Saying the full, long-form title of the illness almost shows more clearly the seriousness of the claim. It is a life-depreciating medical condition which can require longterm medication and management.

Another common phrase thrown around is having a panic attack. A panic attack isn’t just feeling a bit on-edge or nervous, or scared, it’s an experience that consumes you entirely for the whole of its duration. Physically, emotionally, mentally. Your heart could be thudding in your ears, you’ll probably sweat, feel dizzy or almost like you’re having an out-of-body experience (dissociation), maybe even nauseous. Your fight or flight instincts will take over, your legs will feel like jelly though you want to run, your entire being screams to be rescued. Often, it’s for no logical reason at all. Then when it’s over, (and it can last a while), you’ll be so drained of every ounce of energy it can sometimes take days to get over it. It’s serious stuff, and it’s horrible.

If someone with Generalised Anxiety Disorder hears someone saying they just had a panic attack because, I don’t know, they thought there were no tea bags left (Yorkshire Tea, obviously), it can feel a little demeaning. And dramatic, to be honest.

The same can be said for Schizophrenia, Bipolar, Borderline Personality Disorder, and more. I’ve personally seen these used as an adjective on a regular basis; you only have to spend 2 minutes on Twitter to find someone calling someone else “Bipolar” because they’re indecisive or temperamental. As someone diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder, this misunderstanding is frustrating for me. I get exasperated at the false information that seems so persistent, but seeing individuals throw my disorder at others as a slur is beyond painful.

And it happens all the time.

This misrepresentation just shows how much the opinion of the masses controls general thinking. Breaking through these walls by educating is a huge task and is a tough one, too. Even when I’ve tried to gently correct someone by explaining that that isn’t what Bipolar is, they’re always very confident in their incorrectness. At best, they’re dismissive, at worst often cruel and sometimes aggressive at my audacity in trying to share the truth. Although I have lived experience, they hold on to the belief that the common (mis)understanding is gospel.

It feels as if I’m still not being afforded basic respect because I’m deemed “crazy” and “weak”.

Stigma is real and it’s a hardened, colossal titan, when I feel like a really annoyed hobbit shouting at the top of my little lungs. 

To be fair, it’s had a long time to strengthen itself in the mind’s of the population. Throughout modern history, those with mental illnesses have been feared, demonised and even outcast from society. As recently as the 19th century, it was a common pastime to pay a fee to be allowed entrance to an asylum, with the patients on display for the entertainment of paying customers. That seems monstrous and it’s almost unbelievable, but it happened. Yes it’s true that we’ve come a long way in our understanding of mental illness since then, but spreading this education to the general population is slow, and our actions and social principles are still playing catch-up.

Where does the misinformation come from? Well a lot of it is the media, for sure. Those who don’t know about a disorder trying to report on it, or show a representation of what it’s like. Another source is one you’d actually see as more reliable, which it is if you take how it’s intended: the DSM-V. This is the official diagnostic manual that medical professionals use as a tool when diagnosing a mental illness.

It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list of symptoms, or a in-depth account of the experience of living with an illness; it was created to help professionals differentiate one disorder from another.

If you do quick Google (which people who to try and discredit you on Twitter like to do before posting a screencap as absolute evidence) for Bipolar Affective Disorder, the NHS tells us “Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings.” Well yes, but also no. That’s not really a fair or accurate explanation, but this is the basis on which most people ground their understanding (and insults) on.

More needs to be understood for any of this sensitivity towards language to make sense.

We’re not gatekeeping, or being the word police, we’re just concerned that the over-use of words out of context is taking away our power to express what we feel, see and hear as people living with mental illness. Overuse of words drains their impact and often changes their true meaning, and that’s tough when we already have a hard time trying to explain something that’s completely subjective like depression, psychosis, dissociation.

We suffer trauma, pain (both emotional and physical), exhaustion, fear, a whole range of endlessly difficult experiences day in and out. Explaining this with vocabulary that’s been rendered meaningless is going to be tough for anyone.

If we all worked to change our language and be more considerate, we’d make things much more hospitable for those suffering with mental illnesses to be open and talk about how we live and how we see the world. In turn, the general understanding of these conditions will change. Progress rests on us all being more amenable and hearing each other, gaining understanding from each other and truly listening when someone shares their experiences.

So the next time you think about describing something as “Bipolar”, or hear someone say they’re “OCD”, please take a second and work on being more thoughtful in your use of language.

Words are some of the few weapons we have in this fight against stigma. We need this.

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