I walk down the street trying my best to be mindful, aware and present. I notice company signs I hadn’t before and catch snippets of intelligent chatter on the street. Yesterday was warm, but today it’s lightly snowing and I’m just glad I remembered gloves! I’m proud of myself. Off daily medication for seven months now, coming up on a year since my discharge from inpatient care, and my psychiatrist and psychologist are both pleased with how well I’m doing. I smile and open my mouth to catch a snowflake, and just as I do, I hear someone as they walk past: “This weather is so bipolar.”
Language surrounding mental health has been changing recently. People are becoming more aware of the way they talk about mental illnesses, being careful not to use medical diagnoses as adjectives, swapping phrases such as “failed suicide attempt” with “non-fatal suicide attempt,” and learning to use people-first language.
With all that in mind, many people wonder why others are so bothered by the use of certain words. You are not alone if you have ever had thoughts along the lines of the following:
“People get offended too easily”
“I’m not trying to be disrespectful”
“They’re just words!”
Max Denley, the director of facilitation for the Get Real Movement and graduate of Acadia University’s Music Therapy program, says that when one uses offensive language, such as someone’s diagnosis as a trivial adjective, “it definitely downplays what they’re dealing with and what their struggle is. If someone can equate something like the weather to bipolar (disorder), it’s not really an understanding of what they are experiencing.”
The way we speak about psychopathology, often unintentionally, can make us seem closed-minded. As soon as you say something insensitively, someone with a mental illness who wanted to share or discuss their experience may not feel able to confide in you anymore. It “reflects who you are as a person,” Denley says. “You’re basically saying to anyone who is listening, that you’re not going to be someone who is open.”
As we can learn from Microsoft’s failed Twitter bot, that started independently spewing violent and racially insensitive tweets after “learning” from the current online lexicon, the language we use really does get into our heads. Language is pervasive and it proliferates negativity as it spreads throughout communities. This is why it is so important to fix.
Mina Soltangheis, head of research and development at Fly Bits and graduate researcher at MIT says “it is very important that we fix how society talks about something, so … it doesn’t have the negative biases that might just be the result of language being in constant evolution.”
The way we speak about mental disorders, and mental wellness in general, really does have an effect on others.
Even if the intent of your speech is not malicious, you run the risk of coming across as intolerant and uninformed if you use offensive language. Making small changes in our discussions of certain topics breeds respect and compassion for ourselves and for others.
One of the hurdles to overcome here is the challenge of understanding. Not everyone has a diagnosed disorder, so it can be difficult to empathize with individuals who do.
“Once we have a deeper understanding, then maybe we will have a deeper compassion for each other as well,” says Soltangheis.
But here’s the truth: You don’t have to get it. You don’t have to know what it’s like to have a manic episode, an addiction or an OCD-related compulsion. The only necessity is to be respectful of each other and honour the fact that someone else’s experience is inconceivably different from your own.
True empathy is not the colloquial walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It is knowing that no two people can wear the same shoes at once, and that difference is what needs to be understood and respected.
None of my close friends have bipolar disorder, but they have gotten to know me well enough to understand why it is not helpful to use harsh language.
That being said, we all share fundamental human qualities and can usually relate to at least one emotion or circumstance that someone else is experiencing.
“We are a lot more alike than we are different, as human beings,” Denley says.
My journey to evolve my own speech has been an empowering one. Once I started referring to myself first before my disorder; as someone who has bipolar disorder, rather than being bipolar and discussing my experience in terms of living with rather than suffering from a mental illness, small shifts in my mentality started to occur. It gave me the power to be respectful to myself and to respectfully demand that others do the same.
When speaking to ourselves with compassion and requiring that others speak to us the same way, we invite positivity and we slowly eat away at negativity.
Decreasing damaging self-talk by means of small changes in the words that we use is a simple technique. It decreases stigma, it redefines illness and it allows us to feel more in control rather than feeling controlled by a diagnosis.
If all of this leaves you paralyzed by a fear of slipping up or being accidentally offensive to a friend living with a mental illness, here is a simple trick: ask yourself if what you are about to say is helpful. If it isn’t, don’t say it, or think about your intention and then reword it.
The best way to tackle big issues like these is to stay informed, be open-minded to the experiences of others and be mindful of the fact that your words carry weight.
By Jessica Barrera
Image by Phoebe Maharaj