“This project at work is making me want to kill myself.”
“I can’t help it, I’m just so OCD about my keeping my books in alphabetical order.”
“The weather is so bipolar today. First it was pouring and now the sun is out.”
I’ve been mulling over how to write this entry for a good couple of months now. It’s an important topic for me, but I don’t want to get preachy and I definitely don’t want to patronize my readers (for whom I am unendingly grateful). I know all too well that folks are good and fed up with people telling them what to say and what not to say because someone, somewhere, might deem their words offensive or inappropriate.
But part of advocating against stigma and being a voice in the mental health community is learning when to speak up -- not for the sake of political correctness but in the spirit of helping build a society that doesn’t reduce or minimize its own members to stereotypes and tired, inaccurate analogies.
I want to note that, of course, this issue is not limited to the misuse of phrases or terms regarding mental illness. In middle school, I cringe to report, “retarded” and “sped” were two of my choice descriptors for anything I found unfavorable. I was in college when the Think Before You Speak campaign went live, explaining that it was “not cool” to call people “gay” as an insult or even as a joke. While awareness has been raised and I think we’re doing better, this stuff still happens, and I don’t think we should sit on our high horses and judge others who use this kind of language. Old habits die hard -- I know when I’m very upset about something, I have an upsetting tendency to use the gross, overused pantomime of shooting a gun into my temple. Me! Someone who lives with depression and understands clearly that suicide is the furthest thing from a joke. It can be hard to change our ways, even with the best of intentions.
But while I don’t want to be the PC police, I do believe that this is something we can help each other with. I believe that we don’t want to be a society that uses factual descriptors of disability, of sexual orientation, of mental illness, to carelessly insult others or to casually describe everyday life. It’s a tangible area that we can each work on, as individuals and as communities, to learn to build each other up instead of using our words to relegate others to the dark corners of an ill-defined and poorly understood existence.
As always, I think that the path to compassion is through information and understanding, so I want to explain why it’s such a big problem to talk this way (or to accept when others talk this way).
To understand that this language does those things is to take a step toward understanding those who live with mental illness (or disability, or any other kind of marginalization). As we understand, we become better empathizers, and we’re able to take a step toward loving others more wholly and living with them in a community of compassion and trust.
These days, does anyone think that we could use less of that?