“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” That may have worked in the schoolyard at recess, but our word choices have tremendous power, both to communicate and to miscommunicate. Take the word “depression” for example.
Depression is often used in everyday language to describe an emotion like sadness. This is a very different creature from major depressive disorder, which can be debilitating and affect almost every aspect of a person’s functioning. Similarly, bipolar disorder is a whole different can of worms from short-term mood fluctuations. If people are lightly tossing these words around to describe transient emotional blips, it dilutes the social understanding of these terms and minimizes the experience of those suffering from mental illness.
When people use language that minimizes mental illness, that’s a form of stigma. It may not be as overt as using derogatory language, but saying someone is “just depressed” suggests that they’re “just not trying hard enough” and they need to “chin up” and get over it already. Dismissing the effects of mental illness is on par with saying someone is weak; regardless of the specific words, devaluing people’s experiences is not okay.
Other illnesses are also minimized, e.g. “it’s just anxiety” or “everyone has a little OCD/ADHD/etc.” There’s also the more over-arching “it’s all in your head.” Sometimes people might say they feel”suicidal” or want to kill themselves to express feelings of disappointment over some minor event.
When it comes to illnesses that are less familiar to the public, words that are more overtly pejorative may come out. “Psycho.” “Crazy.” They’re terms that are associated with mental illness, yet in common usage, they often refer to people who aren’t mentally ill but are doing strange or incomprehensible things. Bad behaviour gets linked to mental illness when people use undefined slang that makes it very fuzzy what’s actually being referred to.
We could all do well to reflect on our word choices and what they mean for those around us. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can wound me far deeper.
There’s more on mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.
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