Why Stigmatizing Language is ‘Totally Mental’

If you are not battling mental illness, if you are not hosting demons in your mind, then you have no right to use stigmatizing language. Words associated with mental illness are not intended to be carelessly tossed around. You wouldn’t use the word “cancer” in such a derogatory manner, would you? No. You wouldn’t simply because cancer is a serious, life-threatening disease. Mental illness, according to a painfully large portion of the population, is far from severe. It does not ruthlessly murder its prey. Please, it isn’t even worthy of discussion. While cancer survivors are venerated (and rightfully so), those of us battling mental illness are ignored. People do not think twice about mental illness because of this little pest commonly known as a stigma.

Where did it come from? Well, that’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since my diagnosis. In part, I think it has become such a taboo topic that people do not feel comfortable asking for help in times of suffering. Still, we must ask ourselves why the topic is so controversial, why we are avoiding discussions that should be of the utmost importance. I attribute much of the stigma surrounding mental illness to over used words like “crazy,” “insane,” and, God forbid, “mental.” By spitting out such terminology without proper understanding, you are unintentionally invalidating the suffering of mentally ill individuals. Through our societies excessive reliance on stigmatizing language, mental illness (or the concept of it) has become rather commonplace. Of course people do not feel the need to discuss it. Of course they see it as a lesser demon, one that is not serious, that does not kill.

The key to eradicating the stigma lies in promoting awareness of mental illness, which, according to WHO, steals the lives of an estimated one million individuals each year. Just because you could not recall the formula for kinetic energy does not mean you are retarded. You have an eclectic taste in clothing? Here’s a wild guess: you probably aren’t bipolar. You think you’re depressed, huh? If the feelings of utter depletion and worthlessness went away the minute your BFF cancelled her plans with her boyfriend, it’s highly unlikely you are depressed. There is a reason that mental illness is not taken seriously, and it is that, through stigmatizing language, it has become associated with what could be categorized as minor inconveniences.

Now, people who use words such as “retarded,” “bipolar,” and “depression” as adjectives may, indeed, be battling mental illness. Or perhaps they are simply uneducated. Either way, I am not here to judge. My intention is, simply put, to report what I have observed first hand, to explain the detrimental effects of witnessing my illness become a frequently visited word in someone else’s vocabulary.