When Words Wound: Using Mental Health Terminology Incorrectly Hurts

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Sometimes people are unaware that using mental health terms to describe everyday situations can cause harm to people by trivializing those mental health issues.

Back in my days of mental health ignorance, when I didn’t know the difference between different disorders and thought everyone with a mental health issue was just “crazy,” certain things didn’t bother me. Hearing people say that they felt depressed because something didn’t go their way, or people saying they were bipolar because they had a little temper tantrum, was nothing new to me. I said those same things, inadvertently trivializing the mental health issues of people around me.

Oh, how the times have changed. Those same things now bother me to the core. I get upset over people using mental illness as a running gag or incorrectly using it to explain their own personality flaws that reflect more on their upbringing than a real disorder.

I’m not here to have a fit over a few words. Not everything people say gets under my skin. I’m not here trying to be the mental health word police. I still find myself slipping and using terms in ways that are inaccurate. Does that make me a hypocrite? No. Even though my diagnoses happened in 2011 and I had a history of depression before then, I’m still learning and growing. However, I’m more aware now of how those things hurt, because they hurt me.

I know that most people wouldn’t intentionally say or do things that hurt people suffering from mental disorders. They’re mostly unaware of the consequences of their actions or words. Society has imprinted these cliché expressions and thoughts into our minds, so much so that it’s second nature to stigmatize and trivialize the significance of mental health issues.

What irritates me the most is the people diagnosing themselves, no matter how asinine their “reasons” might be. I once had someone ask me about my bipolar disorder. They wanted to know the symptoms. Afterward, they said they believed they also had bipolar because they like to get into arguments with different people. I know this person well. All I could do was shake my head. Just because you constantly get into arguments doesn’t mean you’re bipolar! I explained that it’s more likely that they simply don’t like people, and like to be argumentative for no reason. But I also explained that if they really felt that they could have bipolar, they should go get checked out. It wasn’t my place to tell them what I really thought. I’m not a trained medical professional or therapist.

I also don’t like that when I’m upset about something, the first thing people ask is if I took my meds today. Or I get told I must be acting this way because of my bipolar disorder. It makes me feel like they aren’t taking me and my feelings seriously. Explaining to people that just because I feel like cussing you out doesn’t mean I’m having a bipolar episode is exhausting.

I constantly find myself having to explain that just because I’m mad doesn’t mean I’m experiencing an episode; people with bipolar are still capable of having regular human emotions and moods. If people really want to know if I’m having an episode, I encourage them to do their research and watch my activities and how long and extreme my moods are. That’s what I had to do, so I could know how to deal with this new reality of mine and to break out of my ignorance where I was insulting people with real mental health issues.

True, I still crack jokes about my bipolar disorder and anxiety. The jokes aren’t extreme and they’re about myself. Someone got upset with me about it because they thought I insulted myself. I didn’t think my jokes were insensitive to myself. Again, this isn’t me being hypocritical and contradicting everything that I just said. It’s just that I have to find some humor in this. If I didn’t, it would consume me. I treat my disorder very seriously, and so should everyone else. But if I make light humor of it, know it’s so I can maintain my own sanity.

It’s unrealistic for me to call for everyone to stop trivializing mental health disorders with cliché lines and phrases because it’s embedded in our societal psyche. But gradually we can make the shift and people will one day understand the harm caused when people say, “Oh, I’m so bipolar today.” For those of us living with it, it’s not just today that “we’re bipolar.” It’s every single day.

The shift may not happen in my lifetime, but I think we’ll be able to make good headway.

About the author
JB Burrage is a creative and content writer living in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Originally from Meridian, Mississippi, he joined the US Army in 1999, serving until 2010. After years of battling depression and receiving different diagnoses, he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011. Initially ashamed of his diagnosis, he later embraced it and started on the road to manage it. He’s currently the owner and operator of The Mad Writer Project, LLC, a writing service and self-publishing consulting company that also manage his various projects; including material that addresses his mental health concerns and a blog on his website called The Diary of a Mad Writer. More information about him and his work can be found at jbburrage.com.
1 Comment
  1. Words really do hurt, but so do actions! This is so hard.

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