May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I’d like to discuss the language that revolves around manic depression.
Manic depression is more an umbrella term than a diagnosis. It’s shared by words like mood disorder, bipolar illness, affective disorder, bipolar affective disorder, mania, chemical imbalance … all of these words and terms aren’t exacting and can actually be confusing. Mental disorders aren’t black and white, and all patients are unique in how they and their family manage the struggle to exist in a world that holds stigma to mental imbalance.
There are a lot of negative phrases that are commonly and often carelessly used to describe a circumstance, characteristic, or person. I’ve heard family members and even myself say things like, “She’s crazy.” “She’s getting wacky again.” “She’s a real nut job.” “She’s mental.” “She’s psycho-coo-coo.” It’s horrible and makes my heart ache as it shows ignorance and disrespect to the amazing woman my mom really is. She raised two smart kids who have sound work ethics and contribute to the world and have advanced degrees in our educational pursuits.
Whenever her actions or circumstance seem abnormal, it’s tempting to use these expressions without thinking. But just because these expressions are commonplace doesn’t mean they are harmless – all of them carry a negative association that is directly applied to the person being described as well as all people living with mental health conditions.
DISMANTLING THE STEREOTYPES
If we refer to an individual with a mental health challenge as “crazy,” “nuts,” or “insane,” we reinforce negative stereotypes that promote discrimination. And as a result, we’ve made it that much harder for people living with these challenges to share their feelings and, more importantly, seek help. It also makes it difficult for family and friends to speak up and find support. After all, who wants to be considered one of “those” people?
I’m in an industry of vanity – the fitness industry is full of food disorders, image issues, and people masking their mental shame with muscles. I was to some extent one of those people until I was 25, when my entire life shifted to the healing arts and I not only found my gift – I allowed myself to be, well, just Sue. For the past 22 years, I constantly check in with my emotional state, never dismissing a feeling I’m having about any particular moment in time. In fact, when I’m feeling sad, angry, or overjoyed, I’ve learned to pause, acknowledge the feeling, and allow it to just be there.
GIVING OUR MIND A VOICE TO EXPRESS ITSELF
The language we use to talk about mental health can have powerful consequences. While some may intentionally use unkind labels to describe individuals with mental health conditions, most people are just unaware that their language choices are harmful.
Over the years of being honest about my mom’s illness, I’ve found that many friends and colleagues also struggle with this and other disorders. Either they struggle with them personally or with managing a family member – bipolar disorder and other mental health issues affect everyone in their path. The stories are similar to mine, which makes me feel less alone, I suppose, but makes the struggle no less. The best I can do is share what I’ve learned in hopes that together we can find better solutions to manage this disorder and help those who struggle to exist in a body that finds it an effort to reclaim mental balance.