Can we stop diagnosing fictional characters with Asperger’s?

23 04 2012

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.”
I’m glad you’re fine, but you didn’t have a panic attack. A panic attack is when you think you’re dying of a heart attack and you go to the hospital. What you’re describing is a moment of feeling overwhelmed, that was remedied by writing up a to-do list.

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.



12 responses

23 04 2012
Show Choir Member to Be!

As always, you are right on the money.
I was watching a Murder She Write last week in which the character had been in a psych ward. The murderer, I mean another character, informed him that she knew all about it b/c she had seen one flew over the cukoo’s nest. How sad is it that I could see that discussion happening on a modern show?

29 04 2012

And you continue to be my favorite! I’ve heard people have entire conversations on ECT with only Cuckoo’ Nest as source material. Great book, great movie, but not ok.

23 04 2012
Can we stop diagnosing fictional characters with Asperger’s? | Scoops!

[…] Can we stop diagnosing fictional characters with Asperger’s? 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 … (SocialJerk update!See on […]

23 04 2012

Thank you for this post. I work for ‘insert mental health agency here’ in Canada…this topic is an ongoing struggle! It gets especially fun when someone reads something in ‘nonsensical local newspaper’ and then suddenly becomes an expert overnight! Thanks for putting this out there…hopefully those who can actually benefit from this will read it! I know that I’ll be printing out a few copies and suggestively leaving them around for people to read;)

29 04 2012

Thank you! I hope it helps, let me know if you need ne to make a phone call 🙂

24 04 2012

Goddamn, lady! Why you so smart? Your posts make me facepalm because they make so much sense and all I can think is “why didn’t I think of it that way before??” Thanks for writing an amazing blog, and injecting some much-needed common sense into our field.

29 04 2012

Thank you so much for that! Definitely needed it 🙂

27 04 2012

On the one hand, I agree with you and get pretty annoyed by the misuse/overuse of clinical terms by people who don’t know what they mean.

On the other, I think in a way it can be useful for us to all acknowledge that we experience obsession, sadness, anxiety, mood swings, etc, if at a mild, non-diagnosable level. I work with adults with schizophrenia, for example, and they often find it liberating to learn that many people have experienced hallucinations, from sleep deprivation, infection, drug side effects, etc. It can be very normalizing. Knowing that psychotic symptoms happen to a lot of people in life and that it’s not the end of the world can take the sting out of the word “psychotic” (well, some of it… it’s really not a very nice word, is it?)

I wish that we as a culture had more words to talk about mental health in general. Personally, I have many several symptoms of OCD that disrupt my life (and have since age 5) but not quite enough to qualify for the DSM diagnosis. People fall on a spectrum from cripplingly obsessive, compulsive and anxious on one end and completely blase and uncaring on the other. Either end is not ideal for human functioning and there should be a way to self-identify where one falls on that spectrum and talk about how it feels and works.

29 04 2012

Perhaps. I think there is a difference between a professional saying that these symptoms are something that a broad spectrum of humanity experiences, and teenagers saying their moms are “total schizos” or someone saying their girlfriend is “acting bipolar.” I don’t think that helps anyone.

This post was inspired by a woman I know who was displaying total insensitivity for a young man who attempted suicide, saying she had been “depressed” in high school, but wasn’t “selfish” enough for suicide. Knowing this woman for a long time, I knew that she experienced typical teenage ennui and angst, not the depression that drove this kid to hang himself. That’s what I was trying to get across.

29 04 2012

YES YES YES. As someone who actually experiences panic attacks that one is a pet peeve of mine and also not mental health related but your headache is not comparable to my chronic migraines it’s just not so shut up!

29 04 2012

Oh, the migraine thing drives me crazy, too! Fortunately I’ve never had one, but my aunt gets horrible migraines. Seeing her unable to stand, throwing up, and going to the ER has erased my sympathy for a few people I’ve known who rub their temples while sitting in front of their computers, saying, “oh, I’ve got a migraine.”

3 02 2013

Thank you thank you thank you!! This is something that really gets my goat. Don’t say you have something if you haven’t been diagnosed with it. It really cheapens it for people who are living with these symptoms. I’ve been “reframing” my friends self-diagnosis for years now. “it’s not ADD or ADHD, you are just easily distracted by the shiny diamond ring in the case”, “that’s not OCD, that’s just good organizational skills and colour coordination”, “you are not bipolar, you’re just angry, and that’s ok”, “no, you don’t need ‘the ritz’ because, again, you don’t have ADD, you’re feeling stressed and have trouble concentrating, go take a hot bath and just relax”

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