Mental Illnesses are Not Jokes

This evening at dinner my partner and I were talking about our families. My mother had helped my brother move and she struggled helping him because he wouldn’t get rid of anything. I commented that my mom was always a bit of a hoarder and if she thought something was trash and needed tossing, then it really did.

I realized after I said that, that I used hoarder casually the way a lot of people use OCD, anxiety, depression, bulimia, germophobia, and other real, serious mental illnesses. And often we do it unconsciously—we’re not thinking about the word or what it might mean to people who might hear us.

Last semester, the professor, who I was teaching for, referred to a story and the impact the events of the story had on me as PTSD. It was a difficult experience, but by no means traumatic. Later, when I was talking about the experience again, I referenced what she said and then immediately stopped myself and apologized to my colleagues.

I stopped, because it occurred to me that I had just used that term in the way she had, in a way that was casual and inaccurate. I don’t want to do that, it is doing a disservice to those with the illness. It diminishes and dismisses the illnesses and those with them. Including myself—and I want to open real dialog for those of us with mental illnesses, not shun us into silence.

Words have power. By repeatedly using these illness names in casual or joking manner we are building a culture in which those illnesses are made superficial, or at worst, ridiculous.

And when even the most aware among us—including those who teach about structural inequality, systematic injustice, prejudice, and stereotypes in an attempt to make students more aware—use them in an offhand and non-serious way, then how can people not hear that their very real illness and those with these illnesses are not respected?

Ironically, by making these names more common and using them in a range of settings, from jokes, to casual experiences, to memes, we exacerbate the silence in which people with mental illness live.

If I hear my professor use PTSD casually or hear someone joke about their OCD, then am I likely to open up to them and explain my illness, even when I need to? Such as when I might need support from my professor during a difficult period in my illness? Or am I going to feel the need to struggle alone?

I know many of us do this. Most of us don’t mean to cause harm, but I believe we need to work, all of us, to stop using these names this way. I am going to do my best to be more aware of my own words and try not to use the names of mental illnesses casually.

I think we should especially work to stop using the names of mental illnesses that people already struggle to take seriously, like hoarding and OCD.

This work is an important part of creating environments for people with mental illnesses to feel safe and find help when they need it. It’s not semantics. It’s not silly. It’s not superficial. It’s not being too sensitive.

Words have power. Let’s use them to make people feel understood and supported.

4 thoughts on “Mental Illnesses are Not Jokes

  1. Very true. I’m always hesitant to call people out because I don’t know what’s going on in their heads but I can’t help but feel like anxiety and OCD are the new hot things to have in some ways. The longer I’ve lived with it the more sensitive I am about it. Your post puts this into words better than I have 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It does trivialize real mental illness when others use the terms in an offhand way. It makes those who really
    do have those illnesses have to do mental acrobatics to figure out how to be legitimized when discussing their
    diagnoses with others.


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