Over the years, we as a society, have gotten better about being sensitive towards others who are different from us. We come up with politically correct words, teach kids (and others) to have compassion and empathy for others, and educate ourselves about these differences (as to not misunderstand or fear them). Mental illness, unfortunately, seems to be part of the final frontier of understanding. Maybe since people with mental illness are dismissed as “crazy,” their feelings are dismissed as well. The topic is also very much not talked about, especially in communities of color. In an effort to make it safe to talk about, get diagnosed, and treat, here is how we can stop joking about, making light of, and stigmatizing certain mental illnesses.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, with over 40 million adults affected. This includes Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)—which I’ll talk more about later—and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With such a high precedence of anxiety in this country, it leads me to think there needs to be a change with the amount of things we try to squeeze into our day, what is realistically expected of us, and how we often neglect our own self-care. Instead of judging people who are anxious, and labeling them as weird, anti-social, or nerds, try to see how you can understand them, and help make their lives more manageable.
The misconceptions and jokes surrounding OCD, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, makes it worth mentioning here on its own. Despite popular perception, OCD is not just being extra clean, or liking everything organized just so. Affecting 1 in every 40 adult Americans, it manifests in obsessions (intrusive thoughts, urges, and/or images) and compulsions (the things the person does to relieve the anxiety from the obsessions: washing hands, avoiding certain things, seeking reassurance from friends and family). These obsessions and compulsions have to take more than one hour a day, and interfere with your life in a significant way to be seen as OCD. So, no, your affinity for tidiness is probably not OCD, and you shouldn’t joke that it is.
According to the World Health Organization, over 300 million people worldwide are estimated to suffer from depression. There are several different types of depression, from Major Depression, to Peripartum (or Postpartum)Depression, to Bipolar Disorder (which I will talk a bit more about next). While feeling depressed is common, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 16.2 million adults in the United States have had at least one episode of major depression. It’s not an excuse to say that you’re depressed that your favorite lipstick sold out, or anything similar that minimizes this horrible condition. Also, don’t tell sufferers to just snap out of it, or question why they are sad in the first place. Like a lot of mental illnesses, biological factors are often at play.
Bipolar Disorder is one of the many types of depression, and perhaps one of the most feared and ridiculed. How many times have you heard someone call an emotional person bipolar in a degrading way (or said this yourself)? Having a mental condition seen as something so bad and then thrown in someone’s face in anger, can make it difficult for people to take the condition seriously, and seek help if they’re, in fact, bipolar. Recently, Mariah Carey bravely shared that she has Bipolar II, which was first diagnosed in 2001. Mariah didn’t seek treatment for 15 years, admitting she lived in “denial and isolation.”
Crackhead. Alkie. Junkie. We aren’t always supportive of those who have addictions. Whether it’s someone with a shopping or gambling problem, or another with a heroin or meth dependency, addictions come in all shapes and forms, and all deserve our compassion (and not our judgement). In addition to educating ourselves on the disease of addiction (it is more than just a “bad habit”), we should even change the words we use. Instead of saying someone is an “addict,” you can say they have an “addiction;” instead of “abuse,” you can say “harmful use,” etc. It gives people the dignity to seek help, and better themselves, without the added stigma.