About the Term ‘Mental Illness’

By | August 21, 2020

There are many negative terms used to describe someone with a mental illness. Indulge me for a moment:

Crazy and the related “Cray-Cray”
Weird/Weirdo
Nuts/Nutso
Stupid
Psycho
Cracker Jacks
(There simply is no limit on derogatory terms)

There is also a number of derogatory terms used in place of “psychiatric unit”:

Nuthouse
Psycho ward
Looney bin
(Fill in the blank)

These are all hurtful words that can damage a person’s psyche, especially if they already suffer from low self-esteem and no self-confidence.

THE CASE AGAINST USING THE TERM “MENTAL ILLNESS”

The politically correct term to use to label someone with a mental health diagnosis is, of course, “mentally ill”. Now, perhaps it’s just me, but I’m not a big fan of this term, either. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing so much better overall for the last couple of years. Maybe my perception of the term has changed. Maybe society’s perception of the term has changed; I don’t know. But let’s face it: The term “mental illness” doesn’t exactly give people warm fuzzies.

I suppose all of the above could be accurate. Honestly, my feeling is that, despite all of the efforts to de-stigmatize “mental illness”, I don’t think the public’s general opinion of the term has gotten much better than it used to be.

I think the only way to make lasting change is to help people realize that no matter who they are or where they live or what their station in life, we ALL know someone with a mental illness, though we may not be aware of it.

Let’s face it – most people don’t go around advertising the fact that they have mental health issues. (Please note, though: 1 in 5 adults [more than 46 million] in the U.S. experience mental illness in any given year.)

It needs to become personal before people will take it seriously and stop the name-calling, flippant remarks, and discrimination. Some people will listen to a friend, relative, neighbor, or even a stranger explain what it’s like to have clinical depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. Others will continue to look at these “outsiders” with contempt, ignorance, and fear.

Mostly fear.

Well, and ignorance.

Terms like “crazy” and “looney bin” may not be used quite so much anymore, but they still pack a punch. As someone who has been in psych units more than a dozen times, I can tell you that those words hurt. No matter how thick my skin becomes, certain words will always be able to penetrate it.

Sticks and stones? Yeah, right.

Because I’ve been feeling so much better since discovering TMS and working hard during my DBT program a couple of years ago, I no longer feel that I am mentally ill. It’s strange to say that, since my identity for 30+ years was largely built upon that label – right or wrong, helpful or not.

I also no longer say that I “suffer from depression”; I say I “live with depression”. The former makes me feel like I’m a victim, the latter a survivor. Both are, in fact, true. I was a victim of my depression and anxiety for decades. It was a real shift in thinking to go from being a victim to being a survivor, let me tell you. But it is vital to my recovery and my overall mental wellness.

I think perhaps it makes more sense now if I say I’m “recovering from a mental illness”, which is NOT to say that I’m cured (there is no cure for mental illness, but you can manage it); it just means that it is currently in remission. I imagine I will always need to be vigilant about my depression and anxiety. With my brain’s tendency to take the low road, call myself names, and kick myself when I’m down, I also imagine that I’ll be in therapy for a long time to come, which is fine. Gotta keep myself in check.

And you know what? If I have to continue taking two or three psych meds for the rest of my life to help keep me balanced, I will. I know many people who say, “I don’t want to take another pill!” But I’m here to say that there’s no shame in it. I take three psych meds (and have for several years) plus four more meds for other health conditions. It’s really no big deal.

It’s nobody’s business anyway.

REVISITING THE DEPRESSION WARRIOR TAGLINE

All of this has made me think about the direction Depression Warrior should take. The tagline for this site was “Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness and Addiction” since its inception three years ago. But I no longer feel that it says what I want it to say, so I came up with a new line: On Surviving Depression.

“On surviving depression” is more open-ended. It leaves room for all kinds of posts and information, not just the struggle. I’m hoping more people can relate to it in a positive way.

And, for those of you who have read my posts regularly, you might have noticed that I rarely actually write about addiction, even though it was originally a part of my vision for this site. The truth is, I don’t really want to write about addiction. That’s another reason I changed my tagline. I want it to be accurate.

And I want it to signal hope, not struggle. “Fighting stigma” is definitely a struggle, and not everyone wants to be involved in it. I think I’ve found a more positive and inclusive statement, one that says “I’ve come through the other side and so can you.”

MY NEW STANCE

I don’t feel the same as I did when I started this site. I am not the same person. And that’s good – it signals growth. I don’t want to stay stagnant. I love to learn, whether it’s about history, science, or my own wacky self.

So I find myself, at age 51, feeling the need to redefine a few things in my life, this website being one of them. I’ve been thinking about it for a little while, but you know how it is – any kind of change can be scary. Even a good one.

I have not been publishing regularly the last nine months or so not only because I moved to another state and have been settling in this whole time, but also because my email provider changed their user interface and I just could not figure out how to create and send group emails anymore. Obviously, I finally figured it out and I am excited to be writing again.

And now back to my original thoughts: There are words you can use to describe someone who has a mental illness, but you probably shouldn’t use them. (In other words, just because you can doesn’t mean you should!) That leaves us, again, with the general term “mental illness,” which can be seen as a euphemism. Can’t we come up with a  better way to talk about mental health than to call some people out as being mentally “ill”?

LABELS

I’m not going to say a whole bunch about labels here, but there are a few important things I’d like to point out.

Some people live by labels. And it makes sense to them. They need a way to keep track of people, so they label them – “hothead”, “pothead”, “nuttier than a fruitcake” (grrr), “retarded” (sorry, I hate that word), etc. Trust me, there is no shortage of labels!

Some people see labels as a negative thing, as words that exist simply to categorize people and put limits on them. This is where I find myself.

Seemingly positive labels, like “hard-working”, “intelligent”, “college-bound”, or “athlete”, can certainly be a source of pride and can help increase positive behaviors. But they also exclude a lot of people. And when used as insults or to demean someone, labels can be a source of shame and can deeply inhibit people. They can derail a person’s whole life.

So please be careful when you choose your words. The next time the word “crazy” comes out of your mouth, stop and think what kind of effect it could have.

IN A NUTSHELL…

  1. “Crazy”, “psycho”, and other insults are no longer acceptable.
  2. Neither are “nuthouse” or “looney bin”.
  3. “Mental illness”, in my opinion, isn’t much better – but at least it’s P.C.
  4. 1 in 5 American adults suffers from mental illness in any given year.
  5. TMS and DBT have saved my life. No exaggeration.
  6. There is no cure for mental health conditions, but they can go into remission.
  7. With a little support and some hard, honest work, you may find that it’s time to redefine some things in your life.
  8. Some labels can *sound* positive, but I think it’s a good idea to avoid them in general.

Previously Published on Depression Warrior

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