Mental illness has always been stigmatized because it is a subject that many of us lack knowledge in. Society determines what’s acceptable and “normal”, and people with mental illness, unfortunately happen to be deemed as psycho, dramatic, sensitive or lazy. I used normal in quotes because it is a subjective word. While there has been tremendous progress with ending the stigma, we have a long way to go. Honestly, before I was diagnosed, I had misconceptions on mental illness as well. I did not know that functional people could be mentally ill. I thought therapy was for crazy people. I limited mentally ill to the man or woman who talked to themselves and heard voices. Sadly, these were the statements I overheard about mental illness, so I did not have prior knowledge until I was the “normal” girl with a master’s degree from Georgetown University in the psychiatric unit. Did this mean I was crazy?
I remember when I could not get the thoughts of suicide out of my head for eight months no matter how hard I tried. It was impossible until I started treatment with individual and group therapy in addition to medication. Through my personal experience, advocacy and research on mental illness, I continue to become more passionate about ending the stigma. It is why I do my best to practice patience, grace and understating to those who are uneducated regarding mental illness. I understand that it is not the typical conversation that we usually have like the “birds and the bees”, especially within communities of color. But I must be transparent with you; I become extremely angry when I hear people use mental diagnoses as adjectives to the point where it almost brings me to tears.
Once, a nurse said to me, “Why are you depressed? You’re too pretty to be depressed.” For starters, I never said I was ugly. I know that I’m very pretty. While low self-esteem may be the root of someone else’s depression, it was not mine. She assumed that my depression was rooted in low self-esteem. This experience also revealed to me that there are medical professionals who lack education on mental health. Shivonne Odom of Akoma Counseling Concepts stated on the podcast episode entitled Do Therapists Need Therapy? that every doctor does not go through a psychiatric rotation. Mental illness is not always associated with a current life event such as a divorce or job loss even though for some it can be. Mental illness is the result of a chemical imbalance or disturbance in the brain.
In addition to people with mental illness feeling ashamed, in denial, lonely, worthless, suicidal, and abnormal, we also carry the weight of being judged and misunderstood. So, the last thing we need is someone using our diagnosis as an adjective. It is insensitive and prevents people from seeking treatment and can be triggering. I wanted to see if I was the only one who felt this way, so I decided to ask people with mental illness to share statements when people used their illness as an adjective.
Here’s what they had to say:
"I'm so OCD about keeping my house clean."
"I'm being so bipolar about making this decision."
“Lying about rape is so psychotic.”
“The weather is acting bipolar.”
“Oh yeah, yesterday I was feeling depressed.”
“Everyone feels anxious.”
“You look anorexic.”
"Everyone is a little OCD."
"I did not know that fat people could be bulimic."
"Everyone is a little bipolar.”
“I am OCD about ______.” (The blank is the situation or task used to describe OCD.)
Next, I asked them how the statements make them feel.
“This makes me feel frustrated that people don't take the time to educate themselves on the mental health conditions they are comparing their behaviors to.”
“Every statement that minimizes mental illness continues the stigma.”
“When the person described an experience to my diagnoses it really hurt since I deal with actual psychosis.”
“I get angry because when people refer to depression as simply ‘sad’, they automatically assume I am sad without understanding the complexity of depression as an illness.”
“Yes, everyone feels anxious and it is completely natural but what many fail to realize is that people with generalized anxiety disorder are paralyzed by the illness; I can’t stop thinking and my medication helps with that.”
“It invalidated my illness because these types of expressions diminish the reality of living with mental illness.”
"It contributes to my illness because I have to constantly defend myself. It goes to show you how ignorant people are about mental illness. They think bulimia and anorexia are the same thing."
So, let me ask you, the person reading this article. Would you say, “Stop doing that. You’re acting like cancer.” “My HIV is coming again?” I am pretty sure your answer is “No.” Therefore, the same principle applies to mental illness. On behalf of people with mental illness, please stop using our illnesses as adjectives.