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Mental illnesses aren’t adjectives

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Benjamin Watson/ Flickr

Benjamin Watson/ Flickr

“Oh my God I have such bad OCD,” my friend said to me as she organized her notes before class. We hear expressions like this all the time. It’s become common in our culture to use mental illnesses as everyday descriptors. It’s been rebuked before, but I find that people still increasingly ignore the harm that can come of this. Statements like these are said without a second thought all the time, but taking a mental illness and using it flippantly as an adjective to amplify an idiosyncrasy has harmful affects on the people who have to carry already stigmatized mental illnesses.

People who carry the weight of a mental illness not only have to deal with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease, but the stigma that surrounds it. The stereotypes and prejudice that come from misconceptions of their illness can limit a person from obtaining a good job, establishing a supportive group of peers or getting satisfactory health care.

Stigma surrounding mental illness comes in two forms. The first, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, is public stigma. Public stigma is the general reaction that the public has to people suffering from mental illness. The second form is self-stigma, which is the prejudice that those with mental illness place upon themselves based on how society reacts to them.

Using a mental illness as an adjective only worsens this stigma surrounding it. Someone once argued with me about this claiming that having the names of mental illnesses brought up in conversations was a positive sign, because at least the public was actually acknowledging them. Sure, maybe they aren’t as hidden anymore, but talking about them in that manner doesn’t do that community much good. It doesn’t raise awareness about mental health, and it doesn’t create a greater understanding of it in our society. It does undermine the impact these illnesses have on those who obtain them. It trivializes the struggle these people have to go through on an every day basis, and holds a juvenile understanding of the word.

People with real OCD, not the type my friend diagnosed herself with, aren’t simply neat or anally retentive about organization. They experience unwanted and intrusive thoughts and obsessions, often compelling them to perform behaviors that have harmful effects and interfere with their day-to-day lives. Using OCD to describe being a neat freak perpetuates myths and misunderstandings about the actual illness. Instances like this are common for all illnesses: “My dad flipped out on me, he’s so bipolar.” “You’re such a retard.” “I have so much to do this week my anxiety is so bad.” These insensitive comments need to stop. They aren’t descriptions or jokes, and these self-diagnoses aren’t accurate. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four people suffers from a mental disorder. It’s likely that some of the people you are using these expressions in front of are the ones who are hurt the most by the stigma that’s being fed. These disorders are intricate and serious; let’s treat them as such.

Katrina Kervin is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “Mental illnesses aren’t adjectives”

  1. Janet Singer on October 27th, 2015 7:12 pm

    Thank you, Katrina, for this article and for bringing attention to OCD specifically. Most people don’t realize how devastating a disorder OCD can be and that people can be so tormented by it that they take their own lives.My college-aged son had OCD so severe he could not even eat. Thankfully OCD is treatable and today he is a
    young man living life to the fullest. I recount my family’s story in my critically acclaimed book,
    Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery (Rowman & Littlefield, January 2015) and discuss all
    aspects of the disorder on my blog at http://www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com. There truly is hope for all
    those who suffer from this insidious disorder!

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