One of my more important takeaways from
show choir social work school was that we need to start looking at mental health more similarly to the way we look at physical health. Not that we’re doing such a bang-up job with physical health, but the stigma that surrounds mental illness just isn’t there. Someone might not want to talk about having cancer, but they’re generally not ashamed of it. Before making a judgment of someone with a mental health issue, I try to replace that in my mind with a physical one. Would my reaction be different if that were the case? If yes, rethink. (Also, shut up.)
We always want more mental health awareness and openness. People have issues, and they shouldn’t be hidden. People talk about chronic physical disorders (though, I admit, my former supervisor could have kept her irritable bowel syndrome to herself) so it’s great that people are more aware of mental health issues and the effects they have.
Except that idiots now know what these things are.
Mental illness is talked about much more, but not necessarily always in a meaningful way. It’s part of our everyday vocabulary, because everyone’s aunt has seen an episode of Oprah about someone with a personality disorder, a 20/20 featuring a child with an attachment disorder, or a Law & Order about a detective’s bipolar family members.
This leads to us hearing things like the following:
- “I swear, Mila Kunis looked anorexic. Gross.”
First of all, you do not speak ill of Ms. Kunis. Second of all, I knooow. Eating disorders, they are the ickiest! A body weight less than 85% of what’s expected for her height, probably accompanied by amenorrhea…wait, you don’t really think that this actress, or that bitch in your Spanish class, has a disorder, and therefore needs help. Somehow, cutting down someone else’s body type makes you feel better about yourself.
How is that not in the DSM?
- “I’m just really depressed today.”
No. You’re sad because you’re human, the weather is a bit gross, and your job has been really boring lately. Now it”s tomorrow, and you feel better! You don’t suffer from depression, and you should be happy about that.
- “That little boy is so ADD.”
You can’t be ADD. You have ADD. And he’s eight years old and in a Barnes and Noble, what did you expect? A diagnosis of ADD actually requires a bit of interaction with a professional, not six minutes of observing a child knock over a book display.
- “One minute she’s fine, the next she’s yelling at me. She is actually bipolar, I’m not kidding.”
But she’s not. She’s your mom, and sometimes you piss her off and sometimes you don’t. It’s a human relationship, not a disorder.
- “Can I have some Purel? I know, I need to stop being so OCD.”
Again, you are not OCD, you have OCD. Except you don’t. You just like the smell of rubbing alcohol and don’t like the idea of colds.
- “I was just thinking of everything I had to do and I had a panic attack. It’s fine now.”
When every mood swing is bipolar, every urge to alphabetize your boyfriend’s DVDs is obsessive compulsive (they just look better that way!) these terms lose their meaning. “Oh, your kid is autistic? Yeah, I think my nephew is a little autistic.” Not far from this is, “It’s not such a big deal! I was depressed in high school and I didn’t try to kill myself!” “My daughter had a little of that oppositional-defiance, but I just wacked it out of her.”
If you can discipline something out of your child, it’s not a mental illness. If a jog and a viewing of Bridesmaids brightens your mood and gets you on with your day, it’s not a major depressive episode. This is something to be grateful for, not defensive of. Not everyone has a little OCD in them. Your desire to drop ten pounds to look super hot over spring break in college may have been misguided, but it probably wasn’t a six week episode of anorexia nervosa. Mental illness is everywhere. But when we act like it’s actually everywhere, in everybody and in every action, we take away what it means, and we take away the legitimate struggle.
Part of having these terms in our lexicon is understanding how serious they are, and what they really mean. That many of these terms we throw around lightly are actually meant to refer to a lifetime disorder that requires constant management. It’s not something you diagnose yourself with one day, then get over the next.
I blame the internet.