Mental Illnesses are not Metaphors.


Our culture really seems to dramatise things. We're 'depressed' when we're merely briefly upset. We keep changing our mind so we're 'bipolar'. We're 'OCD' if we are organised. Just shoot me now, I'm so embarrassed.

People sometimes say these things not with the intention of causing offence but just a lack of awareness around what these things actually mean. Without clicking that these conditions have caused so many people quite a lot of grief and seriously impact on their life.

I hear these sort of statements far too frequently.

Using bipolar or schizo or essentially technical words to describe mundane or everyday experiences means the original technical meaning of the term becomes diluted and it becomes more strongly associated with these simpler or more fleeting experiences. It normalises illness. The potential problem is that ‘I’m depressed’ now means ‘I’m sad.’ Then how does someone who actually has depression describe their illness or how they feel? How can they differentiate the much more complex, much more intense thing they have from this thing everyone always claims ownership of?
— Dr Zsofia Demien

So here are a few things which we probably all should avoid - they can be hurtful to people who have these conditions, minimise the struggle and also perpetuate misconceptions about mental illness.

Here are a few ways in which we are talking about mental illness the wrong way:

  1. "I'm so OCD" - I hear this one give or take 10 times a week. People say that they are OCD when they are organised, when their room is clean or if they like things a certain way. OCD is not synonymous with perfectionist or organised or cleanly. Saying that someone is so OCD because of these characteristics reveals that they have little idea about what this disorder is about. Yes cleaning and symmetry are part of some people's OCD but it is accompanied by severe distress and intrusive thoughts. There are also many other types of OCD but they all have one thing in common - intrusive thoughts that cause severe anxiety. This can be about a whole number of things - maybe it might be about contamination or perhaps it can be about harm coming to people. Story time - so basically as someone who has OCD each time someone describes themselves as a bit OCD when their room is tidy and laughs and jokes about it, it seriously invalidates the struggle and intense anxiety that I have everyday. It makes me feel like it is something that will not be taken seriously and something that doesn't even really matter and that I should also be able to laugh it off like they can. Furthermore, the whole "I have obsessive *insert cake, Christmas, cat etc...* disorder" That's not a thing and No you're not. If you have OCD I doubt you'll be laughing about it. Diluting the term OCD to a metaphor reduces the seriousness for those who struggle with it.
  2. "OMG I'm sooo depressed" - Again another common one. Depression does not equal sadness and simply using the term in the place of 'sad' is seriously demoralising to someone who might be struggling. It also perpetuates the idea that mental illness is something which just comes and goes and can be easily be overcome. Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, it's not simply an afternoon of being upset. Saying that it is as simple as that trivialises it's severity.
  3. "They're just so bipolar, they can't make up their mind" - No, they don't have bipolar disorder. They are indecisive. Bipolar Disorder is a serious mental illness categorised by episodes of depression and mania. Using bipolar as an adjective dilutes it's true meaning and trivialises the true disorder. 
  4. "I like had a panic attack hahah" - If you really did, that sucks - big time. But a moment of nerves before a date or exam is a moderately stressful everyday event. Don't say you had a panic attack if you didn't. Panic attacks are periods of extreme anxiety - the kind of level where a lot of people feel like they're are dying, paralysed or unable to breathe. Trust me, they really suck and aren't a joking matter. They're the sort of thing that you can feel the effects of exhaustion and the surge of adrenaline hours and sometimes even days later.
  5. "Oh my gosh, just shoot me now, ugh" - This is perhaps the most damaging of them all. Joking about suicide stigmatises talking about it, creates barriers to help seeking but can also really trivialise something which is really serious. Imagine making a joke like this and someone who hears it has some sort of experience with suicidal ideation, attempt or has lost someone close to them? How do you think that would make them feel? Suicide is really serious, needs to be taken seriously and spoken about seriously. Don't say it if you're simply just annoyed. But if you are struggling with suicidal thoughts at any intensity it is so incredibly important that you do tell someone. That might be a friend, family member, a professional or help line. If the person you speak to that first time doesn't take you seriously or are dismissive. Know that they are wrong and only you can really know how you fell. Don't give up - there is someone out there who listen and care, just make sure you talk to someone else - a hotline or other professional support system can be a really great resource and I would encourage anyone who is struggling to utilise one.

What are some phrases which you have heard? Let me know in the comments. xxx


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