Right Words Matter When Talking About Mental Illness

Sep 18, 2017

“Don’t freak out on me again,” is the only thing I hear from my (questionable) friend, who is referring to the nervous stream of sentences that sometimes escape when I’m having a panic attack.  And as I walk away, I focus on nothing more than controlling that worry that always seems to befall me at the wrong moments.  Worst of all, I’m trying to be someone that I’m not, simply because my true self isn’t accepted here. “Here,” being school.

Frequently, I’ve heard whispers about people who are making up a mental illness because they want attention.  “Self-diagnosis” is a popular term.  And if they happen to be diagnosed by a medical professional, the hate continues because they are now officially “crazy,” or perhaps “messed-up.”  However, the truth is that anyone with a mental illness is wildly similar to anyone without: they’re just trying to live life and be accepted.  Why is it so unfathomable that these people can have a place in the world without being called out by others?

A mental illness isn’t a path that is chosen by an individual, and it isn’t something that they are making up or can end at any moment, just with their own willpower.  It is a constant struggle that often hurts just as much as physical pain.

It is sorrowful to think that school is a place where people find it acceptable to jokingly claim, “This makes me want to kill myself,” or “That dress makes her look so anorexic,” or even “I’m sorry I’m being so OCD about this.”  A friend of mine who struggles with bipolar disorder confided to me that she had overheard a student call another “bipolar,” based on their actions.  My friend asked him if he actually knew that the person had the condition.  “No,” he replied.  “I just meant that they’re crazy.”

Mental illnesses should not be interchangeable with insults.  The danger with such a comfortable use of words related to mental illness is the fact that those conditions are completely invisible.  It is impossible to know if a person in the room has been diagnosed with the illness, had a friend with it, or seen a family member suffer.

I want school to be a place where every single person is comfortable being who they are and who they were meant to be, without the constant worry that they will be hurt by the words of others.  I want students to be educated about mental illness much earlier in their academic career and be encouraged to recognize the signs in themselves and others, to embrace the struggles that they have been given rather than fear them.  I have spent a lot of my life being afraid of what I cannot change and how it will make me different than those around me.  However, I have come to realize that hiding a struggle does not make it any less present, and often creates worse situations.

Everywhere around me, I can see change happening, and it is remarkable.  We have destigmatized countless things that have hurt people many times before, and therefore, I have no doubt that mental illness can be accepted as well.  So, here is what I ask of you: don’t let “OCD” mean “organized.”  Don’t let “bipolar” mean “crazy.”  Don’t let mental illness mean anything other than what it means.

Juliette Thompson is a student at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.  She produced this piece as part of the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Orono sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.

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