Eliminating mental health stigmas starts with speech

How often do we hear these words in common speech? “She’s so bipolar.” “I hate having a messy room, I’m so OCD.” “Wow, what a schizo.” “He’s so retarded.”

For me, it’s pretty often. Walking around campus, in class and around town, I hear mental health terminology used frequently.

Usually it is completely out of an actual health context, and usually it is derogatory. While people may not intend any harm by saying these things, the offhand use of this terminology is harmful, and needs to be removed from the vernacular.

Cassandra Nichols, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, said this flippant use of mental health terminology contributes to negative stigmas around mental health, and is damaging to people who are really experiencing these conditions.

“One way to destigmatize mental health is to destigmatize the names,” Nichols said.

Destigmatizing the names means stopping the trivial use of mental health terminology, which belittles the experience of people legitimately suffering from these conditions.

Common use in vernacular can have very negative impacts on the psyche of people who have, or think they may have, these conditions, Nichols said.

“It makes them feel like it’s something to be ashamed of, and like perhaps people won’t want to be friends with them if they knew,” Nichols said.

It embarrasses and marginalizes this population, and makes them feel like identifying in this way is something to be ashamed of. It makes people even less likely to seek help, and promotes the idea that these conditions are abnormal and disgraceful.

The reality is that people can live chronically with mental illness very successfully, with treatment. It’s not something to be ashamed of, and the more it is trivialized in speech, the more shameful it becomes.

Nichols said most people use these words without realizing they are hurtful. This is simply a lack of awareness – but these words used like this are hurtful. The truth is they are slurs just like any other.

We need to look out for the members of our community with these conditions.

They are just as much a part of the Cougar family as anyone is. It’s rude and disrespectful to them to trivialize conditions like that.

Nichols compared it to terminology that has thankfully begun to disappear – “That’s so gay” being used to describe something negative. This is, unquestionably, derogative. Expressions like “retarded,” “schizo” and “bipolar” are often used the same way, and should be treated the same way as any insult based on an unchangeable aspect.

This speech perpetuates a hateful climate for people with mental illnesses, or people considering seeking mental health support.

The last thing we as Cougs want to do is prevent people from seeking help by our use of language.

We need to recognize the power our words have on the culture on this campus. By normalizing this terminology, we are contributing to stigmatization.

Luckily, there’s a lot we can do about this. It starts at the individual level – make the conscious decision not to use these words. If you’re an organized person, that’s great. Describe yourself as an organized person. Don’t belittle someone who actually suffers from OCD by describing yourself as OCD.

Mental health is a very complex topic. There is much more to OCD than being organized. There is much more to depression than being sad. There is much more to anxiety than feeling nervous.

If we all made a conscious decision to stop using these words so casually, it would help to change the climate and destigmatize mental health.

Don’t be afraid to call someone out for using these words. Similarly to how we would call someone out for homophobic or racist language, we can tell people when their language isn’t acceptable. Simply saying, “That language isn’t appropriate,” can go a very long way.

Don’t marginalize mental health any more than it already is.

Stop the glib use of this terminology, and make our campus a little bit safer.

Michelle Fredrickson is a senior communication major from Issaquah. She can be contacted at 335-2290 or by [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this Column are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of The Office of Student Media.