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When Tim Gunn Described a Dress as ‘Schizophrenic' on 'Project Runway’

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I was sitting in my apartment watching an episode of “Project Runway,” titled “Bold Innovation,” (which aired December 1, 2016) when I heard Tim Gunn say something that made me cringe, and made my roommate laugh.

“If we look at the front of the dress and extrapolate what the back may look like, it’s going to be schizophrenic.”

Tim Gunn is a man who:

  • Stood up to designers who refused to design for “plus-size” women
  • Publicly discussed his sexuality on national television
  • Openly supports the LGBT modeling community and LGBT community as a whole

A person who I previously believed to be someone who was open, inclusive and understanding described a dress as “schizophrenic.” Mental disorders are not adjectives. Names of various mental disorders are often used in everyday conversions as adjectives, and I would prefer that people would stop using them as such. A lot of people do it, and many probably don’t even realize they are.

You know what I’m talking about, when people make statements such as:

“Omg, the weather is so bipolar lately. It doesn’t know what it’s doing.”

“I have to have all my notes color-coded. I am so OCD.”

“This rainy weather is making me so depressed.”

“I thought the essay was due today. I just had a panic attack.”

“Wow, he/she looks so anorexic.”

“That dress is going to be schizophrenic.”

Now, I’m not saying every person who uses a mental disorder as an adjective is doing so with hateful or harmful intent. However, just because a person doesn’t mean harm when they make these statements, doesn’t make it OK or lessen the negative consequences it can have. Using mental disorders as adjectives not only minimizes the severity of these disorders, but it further adds to the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding these disorders.

Mental disorders are not:

  • Funny
  • Something to joke or laugh about
  • Caused by poor parenting
  • A result of the individual being weak or having a poor personality
  • Make an individual weak, “crazy,” weird or dangerous
  • Adjectives

Mental disorders are:

  • A medical condition caused by a variety of factors (biological, genetic and environmental) linking together, which affects a person’s thoughts, moods, thinking, feelings and behaviors
  • Serious and can have fatal consequences
  • Real

Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness that causes extreme shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar have high and low moods, known as mania and depression, which differ from the typical ups and downs most people experience. The weather does not have bipolar disorder. The weather may be unpredictable, fluctuating, erratic, uncertain and unstable.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental illness characterized by repetitive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and irrational, excessive urges to do certain actions (compulsions). You preferring to have your notes color-coded, however, does not make you OCD. You may just be tidy, organized, fussy, uniform, precise or particular.

Major depressive disorder is a mental illness that results in loss of interest or pleasure in activities, changes in appetite and weight, sleep disturbances, feeling agitated, feeling slowed down, fatigue, feelings of low self-worth or guilt, difficulty concentrating or making decisions and suicidal thoughts or intentions. One day of rain does not lead you to develop a mental illness. You may be feeling sad, gloomy, blue, lazy or icky.

Panic disorder is a mental illness characterized by panic attacks, sudden feelings of terror, which can occur repeatedly and without warning. Panic attacks cause powerful, physical symptoms. People often go to extreme measure to avoid having another panic attack, including social isolation or avoiding going to specific places. You did not almost have a panic attack. However, you probably were scared, surprised or shaken up. You may have flipped out, had a scare or freaked out.

Anorexia nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation, excessive weight loss and intense fear of weight gain. He/she does not look anorexic. He/she may be thin, narrow, skinny or bony. If the individual is diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, then they do not look anorexic but they have anorexia nervosa.

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. It is a complex, long-term medical illness. Individuals may suffer from hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking and a variety of other symptoms.

The dress does not have a mental illness. The dress is not diagnosed with a severe mental illness. The dress may be unique, busy, overwhelming, disorganized and confusing.

Dear Tim Gunn,

Next time you are choosing a word to describe a dress, please stop and think about what word you are going to say. If the word is the name of a mental disorder, then please pick a more appropriate adjective to replace it. You are a public figure, and you have the power to influence a lot of people with one simple sentence.

By using the word schizophrenic as an adjective, you are telling people that using mental disorders as adjectives is OK, which it’s not. I have seen the positive impact you have made with promoting inclusion of LGBT and plus size models. I believe you can make a positive influence to reduce the stigma and misunderstanding associated with mental illness.

Dear those who thought his comment was funny,

Mental illnesses are not funny. I don’t know if you laughed because Tim Gunn chose the word schizophrenic and you thought describing a dress as schizophrenic, to let the designer know it was a bad dress, was funny, or for some other reason. However, no matter the reason, laughing at mental illness is not OK.

While I do not have schizophrenia, I am diagnosed with other mental disorders. Myself and other individuals did not choose to develop mental illness. We did not choose to develop a condition that affects how we think, feel and behave, and, to some extent, we do not have control over the symptoms that occur as a result of our mental illness. There are times when we are taking our medications, going to therapy and doing everything right and the symptoms still reappear. If I had a choice, then I would get rid of my mental illness.

So please, instead of laughing at someone with mental illness, think to yourself if there is something you could say or do to help the individual. Remember, if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything (or laugh) at all.

Dear reader using mental disorders as adjectives,

I hope after reading this you have a better understanding of how using mental disorders can be harmful and perpetuate the stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds them. There are a variety of other (actually descriptive) adjectives that can be used in sentences. If you have a question, then please ask. Most people I know with mental illnesses don’t mind when they are asked questions if the individual asking is doing so to gain a more in-depth and accurate understanding.

*Disclaimer: The above definitions are not all encompassing. Each disorder is complex and cannot be summarized by one sentence. Each mental disorder has a variety of signs and symptoms associated with it, which may be similar to or the same as the symptoms of a different mental health disorder. Additionally, within each disorder there may be specific subtypes of that disorder. The signs and symptoms associated with a specific mental disorder may manifest themselves differently in each individual.

For more information about mental illness, resources available to individuals with mental illness, or to find a mental healthcare professional near you, visit NAMI‘s website.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

 If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Originally published: December 9, 2016
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