What I Learned About Stigma When I Looked Up 'Mental' in the Thesaurus


I have a confession to make. When I hear the phrase “mental illness,” it tends to rub me the wrong way. These words shouldn’t bother me. After all, I write about the topic, sharing my story with the world in an effort to reduce stigma and hopefully help others through their struggles. But to be completely honest, when I admit — even to myself — that I have a mental illness, or when I read something containing those words, it makes me squirm. I think I’ve finally figured out why.

First, we need to consider these questions. When you hear the phrase “mental illness,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it a negative thought? Does a clip from the nightly news or horror movie play through your mind? Does it evoke images of unkempt people wandering around a psych ward rambling on about things that aren’t there? I admit, sometimes stereotypes such as these invade my mind and that really makes me mad — especially at myself, because of all people, I should know better.

I looked up the word “mental” on thesaurus.com and the results were very telling. Used as an adjective, it simply means “relating to the mind.” But then I continued reading further, and discovered the source of my uneasiness. There were three pages of “words related to mental” and the more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. Here are just a few examples:

Abnormal

Deviant

Weird

Psycho

Crazed

Lunatic

Demented

Deranged

The list went on and on…

I’m sure you see the pattern and get the point. Technically, these words aren’t classified as synonyms for “mental,” but it’s not the technicalities I’m concerned with. The thought that strikes me is, Why are all these negative words — many with downright insulting connotations — even associated with “mental?”

I vividly recall as a teenager using the phrase, “She’s so mental” to describe classmates who were struggling emotionally. I certainly didn’t mean it as a compliment and quite often, it was used to describe me — even by people close to me. If I cried at seemingly inappropriate times or appeared overly emotional, other girls were quick to roll their eyes and dismiss me as “being mental.” The bottom line is the intentions were to insult the person to whom we were referring and it was meant to be derogatory.

When something historically carries with it a negative connotation or stereotype, that’s what becomes embedded in our minds and it’s very difficult to change. When we watch the news, we often assume everyone who commits a crime has a mental illness. Movies with characters who have mental illness are often depicted as extreme and often dangerous. We rarely see success stories on Dr. Phil about people who have bipolar disorder and are productive members of society. After all, that doesn’t make for exciting TV. However the man who burned down his house and was diagnosed with bipolar is likely to earn very high ratings.

Perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe I’m the only one who will ever think it matters. It could very easily be written off as semantics. Hopefully everyone who reads this can honestly say words like “deranged” and “lunatic” do not cross their mind upon hearing the phrase “mental illness.”

I believe digging a little deeper demonstrates — at the very least — how powerful our words can be. Think about it. One simple word has over three pages of words related to it and more than half are negative and insulting. Depending on our experience and exposure to these words, many of these stereotypes hold fast in our minds. If the actual meaning of the word was intended in its use, there would be no problem. How often though, do we see it used in a way that paints an ugly picture?

I’m pretty sure most people who know me well wouldn’t describe me as a “psycho” or “deviant,” but I wonder if we are more apt to label a person in the news who is identified as bipolar with an adjective from the related word list? I admit, at times, I’ve labeled myself as such. What does that say about me?

I do realize this does not represent everyone’s perceptions, and I know I am guilty of self-stigmatizing. I can’t help but wonder if it’s partly due to the power of these two words used throughout history to describe a person displaying socially “unacceptable” behavior that is deemed undeserving of the sympathy we show toward physical ailments. The only advice I can give myself is to focus on what “mental” really means and force those related words from the thesaurus out of my vocabulary.

The way we speak, the words we choose and the context in which we use them, are more powerful than we realize. Let’s make a pact to take an inventory of what comes to mind when we hear about mental illness and how we react, and if we are guilty of making assumptions based on all of these words that have become associated with it, let’s make an effort to change that. Even if it’s only in our own thoughts, there is no better place to start.

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Thinkstock photo via Poike.


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