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Please, Please Be Careful How You Talk About Mental Illness

That's the thing about the words we use — they matter.

Written by Natasha McKee
Originally Published: 
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It was about an hour before I was supposed to meet up with some girlfriends for dinner and drinks when I suddenly found myself fighting through an anxiety attack. Looking back, I couldn't tell you exactly what triggered it. One minute, I was getting ready; the next, I was pacing back and forth, pleading with myself to get a grip.

I’d been looking forward to this outing very much. I don't get out often, so when I do, I make sure to savor every minute of it. But when you live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), no matter what grounding techniques you use, and no matter how aware you are of your triggers, these episodes still happen.

After 20 minutes, it was clear to me that this wouldn't be resolved anytime soon and going out would likely make things even worse. So I gave my girlfriend a call to let her know I wouldn't be meeting them. Her response: “You say you want to go, but now last minute, you aren't coming? Ugh. Quit acting so bipolar and make up your mind.”

It wasn’t even her disappointment that took me aback. It was the fact that she nonchalantly threw out a medical diagnosis to express her displeasure with my last-minute cancellation. While she knew I struggled with my mental health, she hadn't experienced anything like it, so I explained my disappointment with her choice of words. She apologized and swore she didn't mean anything by it. Honestly, she didn't even think about what she said.

That's another difficulty that comes with living with mental illness or mental health challenges. Not only is the disorder you live with physically exhausting, but it’s also very trying, having to backtrack and explain to people how offensive those off-the-cuff remarks are.

It makes me cringe when people casually toss out stigmatizing words and phrases. And I hear them all the time, and you probably do too: Your mood swings are wild! Quit acting so crazy,” or “Take your crazy pills and just settle down.”

Were these words said with malice? Unlikely. Did they mean to hurt me? Probably not. But that's the thing about the words we use — they matter.

None of this is said to shame anyone. You aren't a terrible human being if you've made comments like this before. But now you know. Now the picture has been painted for you by someone who is living on the other side of things. Words like this — words you might not think about before saying — can have profound impacts and further stigmatize mental illness.

People who are living with mental health issues or mental illness already tend to feel ashamed. I am a college-educated woman, in psychology no less, who logically understands everything there is to know about the depression and PTSD I live with. And yet, with all the knowledge I have and all the tools and techniques I use some days, it still isn't enough.

Do you have any idea what it feels like to “know” what's “wrong” with you, but still be unable to fix it? The truth is, there's nothing wrong with me, nor is there anything wrong with anyone who lives with mental health issues. But that internal struggle never goes away. So on top of feeling the way I do about myself and having to educate and redirect people who don't think before they talk, it's exhausting.

So this is my plea. My PSA. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it's a prime opportunity to be conscious of the words we use and how they impact people's mental health and those who live with mental illness. But May isn't the only time we should have this discussion. This matters year-round, and people should be thoughtful about their words all the time.

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